Many elderly people, due to the physical problems associated with aging and precautions they have failed to take, are accidents waiting to happen.
"Studies have shown that one in every three men and women over the age of 65 will fall this year," said Peggy Petrucelli, a nurse, and manager of wound care and falls prevention at Jersey City Medical Center. "Due to their brittle bones and slow reflexes, these falls are often serious, resulting in broken hips or, by trying to break the fall, injured arms or wrists."
More than 22,700 older Americans died in 2010 due to an unintentional fall, 338 of those in New Jersey. In New Jersey, each day an average of 194 older adults are treated in emergency departments or as inpatients due to falls. It's the number one cause of brain injury among older adults.
According to Petrucelli, a successful effort has been made at Jersey City Medical Center to reduce the likelihood of patients falling by using the Johns Hopkins Fall Assessment Scale, which determines green, yellow and red prevention zones throughout the hospital and the amount of nursing supervision necessary for each area.
"The likelihood of falls within the senior population is largely due to the realities of aging themselves: poor balance and coordination, bad vision, a dependence on medication that might leave people disoriented or light-headed, and overall weakness and fragility," she said. "Yet, many falls are preventable – whether it's in the hospital or at the senior's home."
She offers these recommendations for keeping seniors safe at home:
- Items that can be easily tripped over (such as papers, books, clothes and shoes). "Very often, people move around phone and electrical wires as needed and then forget about them," said Petrucelli. "These become hazards."
- Scattered rugs that bunch up or stick up at the edges. She recommends using double-aced adhesive tape to keep rugs flat.
- Poor lighting. "We find that some of our patients fell at home because they hoped to save money by scrimping on lighting," she said. "Good lighting is particularly important with older people, who often have decreased vision. In addition, keeping a nightlight on is important should the individual get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom."
- Walking in shoes with crape soles that may skid on wet floors, or slippers without backs.
- Mats in the bathtub and shower floors that may skid.
"In addition, it is important to have handrails on all staircases and grab bars in the bathtub and near the toilet," said Petrucelli. "This gives them support or, should they feel unsteady or stumble, something to grab on to."
She also recommends that seniors have their pharmacist or physician review their medications to determine whether any may make them drowsy or light-headed (e.g. certain blood pressure drugs). Vision must also be regularly monitored.
"The sad thing about so many falls that result in serious injury is that with a little foresight they probably could have been prevented," she said.