Keeping older Vermonters safe and independent at home

As the winter weather starts to creep our way, health experts want to make sure you and your loved ones won't stumble and fall. Healthwatch reporter Melissa Sheketoff met a Williston couple working to stay at home despite balancing fears.

It will be 66-years in February Since Marilyn Whitney said "I do" to her sweetheart. She was 21-years-old and still looks at her husband, Paul, like she did so long ago. "He's my husband. We love each other. We take care of each other," she said.

And as he gets older, Whitney says taking care of him is harder to do. "I wish he would listen to me when I tell him don't do this and don't do that -- I'm afraid," she said.

That's where the Visiting Nursing Association comes in. Maria Nolan is a physical therapist for the VNA and has been working with the Whitneys on and off for the last four years. "They are one of my favorite couples to work with," Nolan said.

Twice a week Nolan does balancing exercises with Paul. She says he has significant nerve damage in his right leg, leaving him walker-dependent. And that means adjusting some things in the house to accommodate his needs. "Doing some of these simple things can really help -- throw rugs, grab bars, clear pathways," Nolan said. They are simple fixes that a lot of people aren't aware of.

"People are scared. They think family members will put them in a nursing home or their independence will be taken away," said Steve DeVoe with the Vermont Department of Health.

The department reports the age for early fall prevention starts at 55 in Vermont, and there's a big reason for that. "Falls is the number one cause of injury-related death in Vermont for older adults and also the leading cause of hospitalizations and emergency department visits," DeVoe said.

To ensure more Vermonters can stay at home, groups like the VNA help set guidelines for families. For the Whitneys it meant a few changes, like finding safe pathways to the bathroom and installing grab bars around most corners.

The couple says putting in these safety measures, like a ramp to their front door, have changed their lives forever. The ramp was donated by a local rotary. Nolan say there are options when it comes to some of these items. "Some do cost a little more than others, but we'll recommend what we think is best," she said.

One thing that's best for this couple is staying in their home safe and together. "It's like my other half, and I can't picture me without my other half," Whitney said.