One out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for older adults and there are more than 2 million nonfatal fall injuries treated for the elderly each year in emergency rooms. These falls cause lacerations, hip fractures and head trauma that could limit your ability to live independently and even increase risk for earlier death.
Even if a fall injury does not occur, a fear of falling may develop causing you to limit activities that could reduce mobility and increase your risk of falling again.
Our homes are often considered our refuge and safe haven, but they are also where we need to be vigilant and practice injury prevention. Although this is true for all of us across our lifespan — from infancy through the elderly years, injuries that can affect older adults in the home are falls, injuries from fires, and problems with extreme heat or cold.
The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and researchers recommend the following to prevent and reduce fall injuries:
♦ Exercise regularly (including weight bearing exercises) to build strength and balance. Tai chi programs are often recommended.
♦ Maintain calcium and vitamin D levels to help prevent hip fractures and be checked for osteoporosis.
♦ Check prescription and over-the-counter drugs with pharmacists for side effects or interactions such as dizziness or drowsiness.
♦ Check vision at least annually and update eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions when needed.
♦ Make important environmental improvements in your home to make it safer. This includes reducing tripping or slipping hazards (loose rugs, clutter on floor, waxed floors, electrical or telephone cords in the walkways), adding grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, adding railings on both sides of stairways, and making sure lighting is good in the home and outdoors. Outdoor steps should also be in good condition.
As for home injuries due to fires, research shows that older adults need to make sure they have workable smoke alarms on each level of the home, particularly near rooms in which people sleep, and practice a fire escape plan. Smoke alarms with flashing lights or vibration alerts can be effective for those who suffer hearing loss. Carbon monoxide detectors are also important to install. Other recommendations include staying in the kitchen when cooking and not wearing loose clothing that can be a fire hazard.
During times of extreme cold or heat, older adults must be protected in the home and check in with relatives, friends and neighbors regularly if they live alone. As we age, we have less of an ability to detect changes in temperature. For heat, it is important to have fully functioning air conditioning (if not in the home then seek refuge often in public facilities that are air conditioned), stay hydrated, and wear appropriate clothing. For extreme cold, wear protective clothing and have easy access to a thermometer in an indoor location to check during the winter months.
Injury prevention is important at all ages, and for older adults it will mean enjoying your home for the safe haven it was meant to be.
Dr. Liller is an expert in public health and injury prevention and is professor in the Department of Community and Family Health in the USF College of Public Health.