Keeping Seniors From Falling

A new report finds that, although senior citizens in America are living longer and are more active than previous generations, they are also reporting to emergency rooms in greater numbers for fall-related injuries.

The report was issued Wednesday by the National Safety Council and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Council president Alan McMillan says his group and others are finding almost all accidental injuries and fatalities going down, with the exception of accidents in the home and community that are mostly driven by falls as Americans age.

"In part, it's a good news-bad news situation," McMillan says. "We're living longer, and we're more independent and more mobile. Medical advances are helping us live longer. But, with that, there's been a steady rise in the accidental death rate caused by falls."

He's also concerned that those numbers are going to increase as baby boomers age.

"The real issue," McMillan stresses, "is that about 13,000 people over 65 will die in America of a fall every year. And 10,000 of them are dying in their homes or residential facilities they live in. And falls don't discriminate. They affect you whether you're wealthy, poor, male, female. They cut across all socio-economic lines."

McMillan suggests part of the problem is complacency. We've just come to expect that the seniors in our lives will eventually fall and break a hip. He says, "Most of us accept falling as a byproduct of aging. It is not. Almost without exception, these falls are preventable."

And have serious consequences if they result in broken hips. "The outcome for a person 65 or older with a serious fall who's broken a hip not good," McMillan laments. "Twenty-five percent of those people will die within six months. Another 25 percent will never return to full, normal functioning. And another 35 percent will live a substantially disabled way of life."

But, McMillan stresses, "If there's anything encouraging about this problem, it's that there are common sense and cost-effective solutions to help prevent falls. When you look at what people need to do, it's not difficult."

He adds that the responsibility for prevention really falls to boomers, who need to think of ways to help their aging parents. It includes helping with prevention at home and in nursing homes, hospitals or other care facilities. Falls happen everywhere.

He calls boomers "the prime audience." Adult children need to step up to help their aging parents. Do an audit of their home for safety, and do an audit of the medications they're taking."

What are the practical solutions? He says, "Make sure you remove cords from the floor to avoid tripping. Don't wax the floor, and use non-skid rugs. Install handrails and grab bars. Increase lighting -- use baseboard lighting to help prevent tripping."

Also, don't climb if you're an elderly person, and if you must, follow these rules: Have somebody there when you have to get up, even just to change a light bulb. Don't climb alone.

McMillan says another piece of the puzzle is the medication or over-medication of seniors. "Frequently, the elderly are on multiple prescriptions and the number of falls they suffer goes up. Also, seniors with arthritis or bursitis have increased falls." What's more, some medications make seniors more susceiptible to falling.