"I've fallen and I can't get up!" We all remember the commercials from the late 1980s. While those campy ads were somewhat laughable, the reality is that falls are a major problem for older people as well as a serious concern (and liability) for senior living and retirement communities.
One-third of seniors will suffer a fall
According to the CDC, one in three older Americans falls each year, with the severity of related injuries ranging from minor scrapes and a bruised ego to death.
A traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a concern at any age when someone falls and hits their head, but for seniors, a fall is much more likely to cause a broken bone than in younger people. As we age, we experience a constant slow loss of bone, especially in post-menopausal women, and weaker bones are more likely to break with the impact of a serious falls.
Some more startling statistics about falls and seniors from the CDC:
- One in five falls by seniors results in a serious injury (such as broken bones or a head injury).
- Annually, 2.5 million seniors are treated in ERs for fall-related injuries.
- Over 250,000 older people are hospitalized annually for hip fractures, and more than 95 percent of those fractures are caused by falling. Of this group, one in five die within a year of their hip fracture.
- Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
- The annual medical costs in the United States for injuries sustained during a fall are $34 billion, with hospital costs accounting for two-thirds of that amount.
For seniors, even if you do not think you were seriously injured during a fall, you should see a doctor, especially if you hit your head during the incident. Head injuries may not be visible or apparent initially, but an injury to the brain can be very serious, especially for people who are taking certain medicines like blood thinners.
Why seniors are at higher risk of falling
With most falls among older people, the person has several risk factors in play. And if you have fallen once, your risk for falling again increases. For seniors, here are a few conditions that increase your odds of falling:
- Muscle weakness in the lower body
- A vitamin D deficiency
- Problems with walking and balance
- Certain medications
- Vision problems
- Foot pain or improper footwear
The cruel irony is that many older people who have had a fall–even if there was no major injury–begin to fear another fall, leading them to reduce their day-to-day activities. And when a senior becomes less active, they grow weaker, which in turn increases their odds of falling again.
How to help prevent senior falls
But take heart: there are numerous things you can do to stay safe and help prevent a fall.
- Talk to your doctor about your risk of falling; ask if you should be taking a vitamin D or calcium supplement to strengthen bones; and always review prescription and over-the-counter medication side effects with your doctor or pharmacist to see if dizziness is possible.
- Get your vision checked annually and update your prescription if needed. If you wear bifocals or progressive lens, you may want to get a pair of single prescription distance lens to wear when doing physical activities.
- If your doctor says you are healthy enough, begin an exercise program to promote strength, balance, and agility. Many seniors find benefits from Tai Chi, light weightlifting, and swimming.
- Use a cane or walker, which increases stability by adding extra points of contact to the ground. Many seniors resist using a cane because they feel it makes them look old, but your safety and health should take priority over appearances.
- If you still live in your own home, consider some of the safety and maintenance suggestions mentioned below.
For senior living communities and retirement communities:
- Repair broken or uneven walkways and steps, indoors and out. For single low steps (like those commonly found at entryways), put down brightly colored tape and path lighting to make them more visible.
- Remove throw rugs, cords, and other clutter like toys and shoes that can be tripped over.
- Be sure handrails are available on both sides of stairways, and for extra safety, consider adding handrails in the toilet area and bathtub.
- Offer a variety of senior-friendly exercise programs such as Tai Chi or water aerobics to improve strength and balance.
- Make sure all rooms have ample light; consider adding more lighting at floor-level and use brighter-wattage light bulbs throughout buildings.
- Initiate a reputable fall prevention program for your community's independent residents.
A few extra steps for better safety
A fall can be a major health risk to seniors and becomes a reputational risk and insurance liability for senior living facilities. By taking a few simple precautions, you can make your surroundings safer and decrease the likelihood of a senior suffering from a preventable fall.
Brad is co-founder of My LifeSite (formerly LifeSite Logics), a North Carolina company that develops web-based tools and resources designed to help families make better-informed decisions when considering a continuing care retirement community. Brad previously spent thirteen years as a financial advisor before starting My LifeSite and still maintains the Certified Financial Planner™ certification. His extensive knowledge of the retirement living industry, combined with his financial planning background, allows him to provide valuable insights about lifestyle, healthcare, and financial planning considerations related to this significant life decision. He’s frequently quoted in national media such as Kiplinger’s Magazine, Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch, USA Today and the New York Times. Brad is the author of a book released in 2014 titled, “What’s the Deal with Retirement Communities?” and speaks regularly for retirement living providers, industry trade organizations, life-long learning classes, and other groups across the country.