While the kitchen is often referred to as the "heart of the house," it can be a dangerous place for elderly people. In fact, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) people over the age of 65 have a 2.5 times greater risk of dying in a kitchen fire than the general population. Cooking is one of the leading causes of fire in the home, FEMA says, accounting for thousands of injuries and deaths each year.
There are many reasons why our aging loved ones are at greater risk for fire death and injuries:
- They may be less able to take the quick action necessary in a fire emergency due to physical, visual, and hearing impairments
- The medications your loved one is taking may affect their ability to make quick decisions or responds in a timely fashion
- Diminished mental facilities due to depression, forms of dementia or Alzheimer's disease also make reaction times slower
- Seniors may not have others around to help during a cooking fire
Here are some tips for making cooking safer for seniors.
Never leave food unattended
Most kitchen fires occur because food is left unattended on the stove or in the oven. Never leave food that is cooking on the stove unattended. Never leave the kitchen — even for a short time — when food is frying, grilling, or broiling. Don't leave the house if food is simmering, baking, or roasting. For people with Alzheimer's or dementia who tend to turn on the stove, then walk away and forget they turned it on, this is easier said than done. However, a variety of products and devices are available to reduce the risk of accidentally leaving the stove turned on. For example, auto shut-off devices can be installed to automatically turn off the stove and oven after a set period of time (anywhere from 5 to 90 minutes.) Some products can be pricey, running upwards of $300, but the peace of mind they provide are invaluable, particularly if you have an elderly chef in your life. Auto-shut off toaster ovens are available starting at around $30.
Keep pot handles turned inward. When handles are turned outward, or even to the side, they can be easily bumped, causing the pot to spill or fall over.
Select the right pots and pans
For people with arthritis, Parkinson's disease or general muscle decline, heavy pots and pans are an accident waiting to happen – especially if the pan is full of grease, which can easily ignite if spilled. Products that can help: two handled pans allow the senior to lift and maneuver hot heavy pans with more stability (Doctor Cook two-handled pan set includes three pans for around $120)
Be aware of clothing
Avoid wearing loose clothing with flowing sleeves while cooking. Robes, house dresses and other garments that may be comfortable for a senior often have extra loose sleeves that could potentially ignite if they get too close to a hot burner. Opt for comfortable clothing that has short or tight-fitting sleeves.
Clear the clutter
Keep cooking surfaces and surrounding areas free from clutter. Use pot holders and oven mitts, but keep them away from the stovetop when not using them. Many cooking aids can be combustible: never leave oven mitts, dishtowels, wooden utensils, paper, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, cans of cooking spray, or oils near open burners.
The accumulation of grease on kitchen appliance hoods and in exhaust systems can lead to disaster. Clean cooking surfaces regularly to prevent grease buildup, which can start fires.
Have proper safety equipment
Make sure there is a working smoke detector in the kitchen. Test and dust each alarm monthly, and change the batteries at least once a year. Have a small fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Teach your loved one how to use it. If necessary, write instructions for use and tape it to the extinguisher.
Seniors don't have to give up their love of cooking just because they've lost some mobility or mental capacity. The key is to provide a safe environment for them to cook in.