Photo by JC Amberlyn.
A fall for an elderly person could mean serious injury and even death.
According to a 2015 report by the University of Michigan Health System, falling is the most frequent cause of injury among older adults and about a third of older adults fall each year.
Over a 12-year period from 1998 - 2010, the prevalence of self-reported falls among older adults appeared to be on the rise, according to a new nationally representative study. Researchers used a sample of middle-aged and older adults and found that from 1998-2010 among adults age 65-and-over and found an 8-percent increase in falls – which translates to a relative increase of nearly 30 percent.
Kingman Regional Medical Center Trauma Program Manager and EMS Coordinator Heather Miller tracks fall-related injuries for those 70 and older.
She said in 2016, KRMC recorded 146 ground-level fall patients that classified as level 2 trauma patients. Ground level falls are those related to trips, slips, dizziness and falling out of bed. A level 2 patient is classified as being age 70-and-over with a potential head injury while on some type of blood thinner (Plavix, aspirin) or a long-bone fracture (femur, hip).
“If they fall and have a significant laceration on their head, they’re on an increase for mortality,” Miller said. “The older you are the more likely mortality, depending on how you took care of yourself.”
The injury itself doesn’t always lead to death. The lack of movement during care can lead to further deterioration.
“The older you get, your body doesn’t recover like it used to. You’re at risk for more injuries from the initial injury,” Miller said. “Not taking deep breaths from medication can lead to blood clots. Diabetes, chronic smoking and heart disease can compromise your vascular system. It keeps snowballing.”
KRMC records don’t differentiate between injuries sustained in the home or nursing home/care facilities. In December, Miller recorded 15 ground-level falls that led to four hip or femur fractures, four arm fractures, five patients with some type of head injuries (laceration or hematoma), one patient bleeding in the abdomen, and one in septic shock.
Miller also has to try to find out why a patient fell. Dizziness from medications or low blood pressure, trips and slips are just a few of the causes.
“Septic shock led to dizziness in one patient and that’s why they fell,” Miller said.
Then there are the healthy patients who go to the gym and monitor their diets.
“They fall and the injuries are less dangerous because they’ve taken care of themselves,” she said. “They’re going to heal and be more active.”
Bathroom falls can be particularly dangerous. Slick, wet surfaces combined with an isolated, borderline noise-proof area can make for a horrific experience.
According to Gregory Norman, founder of contractor company BathMasters, 2.8 million elderly adults are treated in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries annually. Of all falls occurring in the home, 80 percent happen in the bathroom, with 20 percent of these falls resulting in a serious injury such as a broken bone or head injury.
Norman said a lack of dependable objects to grab onto make bathrooms a hazardous landscape for the elderly to navigate.
“With poor muscle strength and the lack of balance associated with aging, the risk of falls in the bathroom significantly increases,” says Norman.
Solutions range from cheap to expensive. Replacing bathtubs with an easily accessible walk-in shower, installing safety bars for grabbing and maneuvering around the bathroom, and applying non-slip strips or mats to baths and showers are a few ways to prevent falls.
“Be mindful of the medications you’re on,” Miller said. “They can cause dizziness.”
She added the sometimes non-obvious hazards: Bifocals can mess with depth perception and inner ear infections can send someone into a spin.
Miller said small pets have sent quite a few patients to the ER.
“The most interesting injuries are related to little animals,” she said. “Those little dogs get under your feet or the owner falls cleaning up after them.”
What might seem as a harmless bump on the head can lead to death in a matter of days.
AARP has an online caregiving checklist to prevent falls for rooms, stairs, kitchen, bathrooms and even outside. They run from the obvious to not so obvious. To see those tips, go to https://assets.aarp.org/external_sites/caregiving/checklists/checklist_preventFalls.html.