RETIRE THE FIRE: Dementia, memory loss, and fire safety

By Tina Gorman

Westfield Council on Aging executive director

Fire professionals have identified four types of fire risk for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease, other dementias, and memory loss. The first is related to a person’s past role or actions. Examples include someone who has always smoked in bed or a retired electrician who continues to do repairs around the house. The second risk involves using appliances inappropriately. Putting metal trays in the microwave or heating a glass dish directly on the stove are common problems in this category. The third risk is directly related to memory loss and may involve forgetting to turn off the gas on the stove, a space heater, or accidentally leaving food in a hot oven. The fourth risk is related to the individual’s home environment and includes overloaded outlets, clutter, and leaving flammable items too close to a heat source.

It is important to remember that dementia and memory loss are highly individualized and vary from person to person. Additionally, Alzheimer’s disease is progressive so the person’s level of both cognitive and physical functioning will change over time. Some people can remain quite independent at home with a support system in place, while others will require the constant help and supervision of a caregiver. It is best for family, friends, and professionals to assess an individual’s risk regarding fire safety and determine which precautions would be helpful at any given time.

In the kitchen, use appliances that have an automatic shut-off feature. Prevent unsafe stove usage by applying stove knob covers, removing knobs, or turning off the gas when the stove is not in use. Disconnect the garbage disposal. Discard toxic plants and decorative fruits that may be mistaken for real food. In the laundry, clean out lint screens and dryer ducts regularly to prevent fires. Consider installing safety locks on washing machines and dryers to prevent inappropriate items from being put in or taken out. Install locks on laundry chutes to avoid the temptation to climb into or drop inappropriate items down the chute. In the garage and basement, limit access to large equipment such as lawn mowers, weed trimmers, or snow blowers. Keep chemicals, gasoline, or paint thinner out of sight and reach.

If possible, it is best if the person with dementia or memory loss sleeps in a ground floor bedroom. That provides easy access to the outdoors in case the home needs to be evacuated. Practice escape routes with them. Cognition tends to improve and worsen at various times. If escape is practiced repeatedly, instinct may kick in and guide the person to safety. A simple picture book of emergency procedures may be helpful.

In the event of a fire or other emergency, it is important to remain calm. Explain to the person with dementia what is happening in clear and simple terms. Provide direction without losing your patience. Interestingly, even those with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and memory loss oftentimes have an innate understanding that something is wrong during an emergency and may be more clear-headed than you would imagine.

Regardless of their disability, all older adults should live in a home with working smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a working smoke alarm can reduce the risk of dying in a fire by as much as sixty-percent. Caregivers might also want to take the added precaution of enrolling their loved one in the Safe Return program through the Alzheimer’s Association. The nationwide emergency response service facilitates the safe return of individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia who wander or have a medical emergency. Register online at medicalert.org/safereturn or call MedicAlert’s Member Services line at (888) 572-8566 for information.

Finally, it is helpful for first responders to know if the person in distress has a dementia diagnosis, memory loss, or cognitive limitations as well as hearing, visual, or mobility challenges. Westfield’s First Responder Informative Extra Needs Directive or FRIEND form provides valuable information to first responders about the person in need, prior to arriving on the scene. Once completed, information from the FRIEND form is entered into the Westfield 9-1-1 dispatch system. FRIEND forms can be picked up curbside at the Westfield Senior Center Monday through Friday between 11:30 and 11:45 a.m., toward the end of the daily lunch distribution.

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