Elderly Falls: How to Reduce the Risk and Choose an Alert System
By Laura Slauson
| Last updated
Elderly falls impact the physical and psychological health of millions of older adults. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the leading cause of injury to people over 65. We can't know for certain how many seniors fall each year (since they don't always tell other people about their accidents). However, the CDC estimates the number to be about 30 million.
But many falls are preventable. With a few simple steps, you can reduce your odds of falling. In this article, you'll learn why seniors are at high risk for falls. You'll also discover tips for preventing falls and learn the steps to take if you do slip or tumble. As well, you'll learn about medical alert systems that help seniors get assistance in emergency situations.
Falls in the Elderly: Statistics You Should Know
Everyone falls sometimes. But falling can have dire consequences for the elderly. Fall statistics show the seriousness of the problem. According to the CDC:
But when it comes to measuring the aftereffects of a senior citizen fall, statistics don't always tell the whole story. One reason is that many seniors don't tell anyone when they fall. (They don't want to appear "old.") And the numbers don't always account for the long-term effects of a nonfatal fall, particularly on a senior's sense of pride and independence.
A fall can be a minor incident, especially for young people. But many falls are dangerous for elderly people because seniors often have existing health issues, such as osteoporosis (which makes them more vulnerable to bone fractures) or heart problems (which can make recovery from an injury more difficult, especially if surgery is required).
Of course, the most serious consequence of a fall is death. According to the CDC, about 30,000 seniors die each year from injuries caused by falling. That makes fatal falls the leading cause of accidental death for seniors. (The overall leading cause of death for seniors is heart disease.)
The consequences of falls for the elderly often go beyond short-term injuries. Even seniors who don't have injurious falls can experience declines in their quality of life after falling. Fear is part of the reason why.
According to an article in the International Journal of General Medicine, up to 70 percent of seniors who have experienced a fall are worried about it happening again. And half of those seniors reduce their activity in response to their fears, which can lead to other physical and emotional health problems.
For example, after a hip fracture, 20 to 30 percent of seniors die within 12 months—not directly from the hip injury, but often from the negative effects of the resulting inactivity.
If you're worried about elderly falls, statistics like these may seem daunting. But you can take action to avoid future falls. Prevention can easily fit into your plans for positive aging and a healthy lifestyle.
Why Seniors Fall
Many falls are "multifactorial." That means a combination of factors causes elderly people to fall.
For example, consider an older woman who fell while going to the bathroom at night. All of these factors could be responsible:
In other words, if her adult children wonder why their elderly mother keeps falling, they might not find one simple explanation. Fortunately, however, some of those causes can be avoided in the future.
Many falls can be prevented. And the steps for reducing a senior's risk of falling are often quite simple. Plus, some fall precautions for elderly people can actually increase their quality of life in other ways.
Seniors can prevent falls by examining three areas in their lives:
The first step in proactive elderly fall prevention is talking to a doctor.
Because more and more older Americans are falling, new research in geriatrics focuses on ways to prevent slips and tumbles. For example, one risk improvement initiative used by doctors is STEADI (Stopping Elderly Accidents, Deaths & Injuries) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The publicly available materials include resources such as a fall-prevention handout for physicians to pass on to patients and tips for evaluating elderly patients' fall risk.
Your doctor can perform a geriatric fall risk assessment and make recommendations to protect you. So tell your doctor if you would like this done. (Many doctors don't conduct fall risk assessments unless their patients specifically request them.)
As part of a risk assessment, your doctor may monitor the following health issues:
In addition to talking to your physician, visit the eye doctor. If you have a prescription for glasses or contact lenses, wear them at all times. And keep your glasses clean. Blurry vision is another one of the most common causes of falls in the elderly, and the solution can be as simple as wiping your lenses on a regular basis.
Physical activity and daily habits
Effective fall prevention doesn't mean limiting activities. It's actually better to be more active.
As we grow older, we lose up to 30 percent of our muscle strength each decade unless we actively work to maintain it. Our flexibility also decreases. Having good strength, balance, and flexibility can mean the difference between recovering from a misstep and experiencing a major fall.
In fact, one study found that doing exercise involving balance for more than three hours a week led to a 39-percent decrease in falls for older people. Exercise can also reduce the need for prescription medications that contribute to falls.
Many effective fall-prevention exercise programs are available. In addition, the following activities have positive effects on strength and balance. They're also fun!
Simple behavioral changes in your daily habits can also help you move through the world with more confidence. For example:
Sometimes, older adults are reluctant to fall-proof their homes because they think that doing so makes them look helpless. But most falls among the elderly occur in the home. Making some small changes to your home environment can significantly reduce your fall risk. For example:
Medical Alert Systems: Why They Can Help and How to Choose One
Medical alert systems ensure that you get the help you need after a fall or other medical emergency. A medical alert system can also give you a greater sense of independence (by easing any worries about being alone and unable to help yourself).
Medical alert systems have advantages over other ways of getting help for seniors. The most obvious benefit is that these systems cost less than hiring in-home companions. As well, unlike a cellphone, you wear a medical alert device, so it can be with you everywhere (even in the shower if it's waterproof). Such devices are also easier to use than most cellphones. Typically, you just have to press a button in order to send out an alert.
You can read many medical alert systems reviews online to get a sense of what's offered by different companies. In addition, most companies have comprehensive websites through which you can order everything you need. Most sites also have a way for you to ask questions. (Just be aware that some companies have been accused of using aggressive sales tactics.)
You can also purchase the necessary equipment at stores like Costco or Walmart. Medical alert systems deliver a wide range of services, with a lot of variation in price and technical capability. So, before you invest in one for yourself (or for a friend or relative), spend a little time researching the options.
The best medical alert system is one that matches your lifestyle, safety needs, and budget. Other things to consider before you commit to a system include:
Usually, you don't need a landline for medical alert systems. Many now work through cellular networks. In addition, medical alert systems with GPS technology are a great option if you're an active older person. These systems can locate you if you have a fall while you're away from home.
Medical alert systems are divided into two basic categories: those that offer 24/7 monitoring and those that do not.
With a monitored system, activating an alert connects you to a call center that is staffed by people who can reach out to one of your contacts or call 911 if you need immediate help. The personnel at these centers are trained to communicate with seniors in many situations. Some services also offer help in multiple languages. For example, Philips Lifeline medical alert devices can connect users to support in over 140 languages.
Monitored systems typically require a monthly fee and can be more expensive than unmonitored systems. So if you'd prefer something like an emergency call button for seniors with no monthly fee, systems such as the LogicMark Freedom Alert Emergency System can connect you to preprogrammed contacts after you press a button on a wearable pendant. The system can be programmed to call 911 if none of your contacts are available. It can also be programmed to call 911, by default, immediately after you press the button.
Fall detection is also an option with many alert systems, both monitored and unmonitored. Systems with fall detection sense when a person wearing a fall-alert bracelet or pendant has fallen, then they activate a preprogrammed alert.
With a combination of features, a medical alert system can help seniors like you feel safe and independent. For example, products such as many ADT medical alert systems offer both fall detection and GPS capabilities, so a senior can quickly get help if he or she falls while outside the home.
Plus, some popular smart watches now offer features that can act as fall alarms for elderly people. For example, the Apple Watch Series 4 automatically enables fall-detection capabilities for users who have entered their age as over 65 in the user profile. (This feature can easily be manually enabled if you're under 65.) If the watch senses that you are not moving after a fall, it asks if you're OK. If you don't answer, the watch calls emergency services (i.e., 911), then it lets your emergency contacts know what's happening.
Other alert systems can track movement, send out an alert if an elderly person leaves the house, and monitor smoke and carbon monoxide levels in a home. You can even find systems that remind seniors to take their medication.
By now, you might be wondering how much a medical alert system is going to cost. Different price ranges reflect different levels of service. In general, monitored medical alert systems are $20 to $65 per month or more, depending on the features you choose. Some companies also charge set-up fees. As an example, the monthly charge for Life Alert is about $50 a month for a basic monitored system, in addition to a set-up fee ranging from $95 to $198.
You may qualify for assistance in covering the costs. Some companies offer discounts for veterans or members of organizations such as AARP. Medical alert systems are also often tax deductible, so check with your accountant for more information.
As well, in many states, Medicaid covers medical alert systems through special programs. For instance, Medicaid's Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) waivers can help cover the cost of emergency assistance devices. Generally, medical alert systems aren't covered by Medicare, although some Medicare Advantage programs might pay for part of the cost. Review your private insurance policy to see if this an option for you.
Recovering From Elderly Falls: What to Do to Stay Healthy
Even with careful fall and injury prevention, it's possible that you'll experience an accident at some point. Here are some steps to help you stay safe:
If you aren't injured and feel as if you can get up:
If you think you might be injured, or if you feel dizzy:
Even if you feel fine immediately after a fall, symptoms can appear afterwards. Tell someone right away that you've fallen. And watch for symptoms such as:
Also, be sure to tell your doctor that you had a fall. Don't be embarrassed: Everyone falls at some point. Your doctor can help you make a plan for avoiding future falls. He or she may also want to order some blood tests and review your medications.
Having a fall can be an upsetting experience. Many seniors feel helpless and discouraged. But a fall can also be a reminder to stay on top of any health concerns, and it can act as a prompt for making positive changes.
Once you have recovered from a fall, continue with your activities as much as you can (incorporating any new fall-prevention techniques, of course). Remember that staying active can ultimately reduce your risk of falling. Many seniors reduce their activity after a fall because they are afraid it will happen again. But a fear of falls, in older adults especially, can actually increase the risk. The result can be a vicious cycle. So if fear of falling is holding you back from any activities, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.
Elderly falls are not inevitable as we age. With a fall-prevention plan, you can protect yourself from the short- and long-term effects of falling. Talk to your doctor about ways to stay safe. And if you think a personal safety alert system is a good fit for you, research some options. Investing a little time right now in fall-proofing your life will benefit you significantly in the run long.