Seniors are often one wrong step away from falling in their own homes. To reduce the chance of an accident, follow these tips.
Rosemary Bakker still shudders when she reflects back upon the
alarming phone calls she received, telling her that her mother had fallen and
fractured her hip. She got two of those frightening calls in just a two-year
period. Ultimately, they changed her life.
The first time that Rosemary's mother, Arlene, fell, she was 69
years old. Her feet had become tangled in an extension cord, and she tumbled to
the floor. Then two years later, she slipped on a comforter that was draping
off the bed. She lay helplessly on the floor with a refractured hip for at
least three hours until she could slowly maneuver to a phone to call for
She could deal with constantly forgetting her shopping list, and she'd made
a habit of writing down where she'd parked her car, each and every time. But in
her mid-50s, Janis Mara's memory problems started costing her money. Late fees
began piling up because she forgot to pay her bills.
"Over time, it really intensified," she says. "I wanted to think
I was just getting older, but my fear was that it was Alzheimer's."
After bugging her HMO for an MRI, Mara discovered that her lapses weren't
"When we finally brought my mother home from the hospital,
I noticed that the ordinary architectural details of her home -- the area
carpets, the low-light levels, the door sills, the extension cords -- became
barriers to her safety and independent functioning," recalls Rosemary.
"Her home was a time bomb waiting to go off."
Rosemary, a certified interior designer, was so unsettled by
her mother's predicament that she put her own life onto a different path.
Returning to college, she earned a graduate degree in
gerontology. Today, she is director of an innovative program she founded called
GEM (Gerontologic Environmental Modification) at New York Weill Cornell Medical
Center's Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology. Her goal: Make homes safer and
more livable for senior citizens.
Fear of Falling
With their slower reflexes, brittle bones, decreased muscle
strength, and poorer vision, the elderly are often just an ill-advised step or
an unexpected stumble away from disaster. Each year, more than 730,000 men and
women over age 65 end up in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to
the stairs, bathtub, carpeting, and furniture in their own homes. Falls are a
particular concern and are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among
older adults. According to the CDC, about one in three adults 65 and older will
fall this year, and as a result will end up in the hospital five times more
frequently than for injuries from all other causes.
"Among the elderly, there are changes in the spine that
alter their center of gravity," explains Elaine Gallagher, PhD, RN,
professor of nursing at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and
founder of a program called STEPS (Seniors Task Force for Environments which
Promote Safety). "With changes in muscle tone and changes in gait, they may
be more prone to falls, particularly if they also have one or more chronic
diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or Parkinson's disease."
Fortunately, many accidents around the home are preventable if
steps are taken to minimize the hazards. "As you get very old and very
frail, some degree of falling may be inevitable, and it may be impossible to
prevent all falls," says Gallagher. "But a number of them can be