Senior Fall Statistics and Resources to Prevent Injuries
As we age, our risk for falling increases, as does the danger of health complications that falls can cause. These simple methods and free resources can help you and your loved ones reduce the risk of falls.
Falls are the leading cause of hospital admissions for seniors aged 65 and over, as well as the most common type of fatal accident for aging citizens. More than 2.8 million seniors are treated for falls each year, with 800,000 hospital admissions and more than 27,000 deaths.
Even falls that don’t result in a hospital visit can be serious. One out of every four American seniors falls each year, resulting in $50 billion in total costs, 75% of which is paid by Medicare and Medicaid combined. These statistics are expected to increase to nearly $70 billion a year as the senior population grows into the 2020s and beyond.
Caregivers, seniors and their loved ones all have an interest in preventing falls. Many factors go into causing falls, and awareness of health and environmental factors can go a long way toward reducing the risk falls pose to seniors.
Whether seniors live in their own homes, family homes, assisted living facilities or residential care communities, there are several relatively simple home modifications that help to make a home fall-resistant, or to make falls less dangerous when they occur.
This guide helps identify common fall risks and measures seniors and their loved ones can take to reduce the danger of a fall. It also covers some of the resources most seniors have access to that can help manage the consequences of a fall when it occurs.
Common Factors Contributing to a Fall
Sometimes falls happen without an obvious cause. More often, one or more factors contribute to a fall that causes injury, and awareness of these factors can prevent many of the most common injuries seniors experience.
Several medical conditions can increase the risk and severity of falls among seniors. Epilepsy, for example, can sometimes result in seizures that strike with little or no warning. While many types of seizures are mild enough that a senior suffering from one can reach a safe place to sit down, others are severe enough that they can cause almost immediate loss of control or even of consciousness.
Heat exhaustion, inner ear dysfunctions and certain heart conditions can also cause a sudden loss of balance or control.
Stroke is another common reason aging citizens suffer a fall. Given that nearly three-quarters of the 800,000 strokes that occur each year happen among seniors, this is an especially common risk.
Medical conditions are not the only contributing factor to a fall. Many medications have side effects that increase the risk of falling down. While an exhaustive list would be difficult to compile, fall risk can be increased with any drugs that cause dizziness or vertigo, blurred or limited sight and nightmares or otherwise disturbed sleep.
Sleep-disturbing drugs are especially risky for falls, as much of the time they contribute to a fall from bed while a senior is sleeping or otherwise unable to prevent injury from even a short drop to the floor.
The environment can also contribute to a senior’s fall risk. As a rule, an environment becomes more risk the more cluttered it is and the more obstacles there are close to ground level.
Novel environments also carry a heightened risk of fall. Sometimes a fall is the result of seniors trying to navigate an unfamiliar bedroom or living room in the dark and tripping over furniture or slipping on a loose rug they may not have known was there.
Pets can also be a cause of some falls. While it is rare, a cat suddenly darting underfoot or a too-forceful greeting from a big dog can cause a senior to fall when bumped or startled.
Weather can be another factor in causing falls. This can happen indoors as well as outdoors, if outside puddles have been tracked onto a hard floor in an entryway or kitchen.
Outside, high winds and wet pavement are potential hazards seniors have to be especially careful dealing with. Snow is rarely overly dangerous as a fall risk, though it can gradually compact into very slippery ice, which makes sidewalks and driveways dangerous for seniors with limited dexterity and mobility.
Shoes, Clothing and Other Personal Effects
The clothes a senior wears can increase the risk of a fall. Old or ill-fitting shoes, pants with cuffs that drag and trailing skirts can trip up a senior with limited mobility, especially on uneven ground.
Blouses, shirts and jackets are also potential hazards if they fit poorly, and they can get caught on protrusions, such as doorknobs and hooks. The sudden disruption this causes to a senior’s balance can cause them to overcompensate and fall while trying to manage the sudden snag.
Preventing Fall Hazards
Just because a hazard exists doesn’t mean seniors have no way to protect themselves. Seniors, caregivers, family members and other loved ones can all play a role in reducing both the risk of a fall and the potential severity of a fall once it occurs.
The sooner preventive measures are taken, the more likely they are to be effective, but even a slight reduction in risky conditions can potentially save a life.
Raise Awareness of Falls
Raising awareness of falls is the first step in preventing them. Many seniors are unaware of how serious a fall can be for them, and they might have a hard time acknowledging that they are personally at risk. Something as simple as knowing when and where most falls occur can encourage a senior who has never fallen before to take basic precautions, such as stepping carefully over ice or holding a rail while on the stairs.
Caregivers and others who have daily contact with a senior must also be alert to fall hazards. Noticing a dangerous condition, such as some loose carpet or grandchildren’s toys left out on the floor, is important if the hazard is to be taken care of before a fall.
Knowing a senior’s medication profile and the likely side effects is also helpful, as are frequent conversations between caregivers and nurses or doctors about the senior’s individual fall risk.
Organize the Home Environment
Any space a senior occupies can be made at least somewhat fall-safe. Some suggestions include:
- Move furniture apart to leave wide travel lanes between pieces.
- Keep clutter off of the floor and move low-lying objects away from common traffic zones.
- Install access barriers, such as toddler gates, or put pets outside when possible, both of which can reduce the risk of children and small animals underfoot.
- Secure rugs to hardwood floors with adhesive or high-friction backing that prevents slides and bunching up.
In the bedroom area, a senior’s bed can often be moved into a corner, which eliminates two directions for potential nighttime falls, while rails and floor padding can reduce the risk in the other two directions.
Keep adjustable beds as low as possible during sleeping hours to reduce the distance a senior might fall to the floor. Consider adding a clip-on alarm for nightclothes that goes off when the wearer falls out of bed, summoning a caregiver immediately.
Help With Chores and Errands
Hazardous conditions are not the sole reason seniors fall, but for many a fall is the result of hazardous actions. Activities such as climbing step ladders, cleaning roof gutters, stepping over boxes in the attic or performing unsupervised garden or yard work are all potentially dangerous for seniors with limited mobility.
These activities are especially hazardous for seniors whose disabilities are recent, and who may not yet know where their new physical limitations are. A senior who has never had a problem climbing a ladder, for instance, may continue to do so even after a lengthy illness that makes climbing and reaching more difficult.
Offering to help seniors with physically hazardous chores, or taking over for them altogether, calls for a delicate balance. Some seniors are in denial about their limitations, while for many a diminished ability to work carries real emotional pain. Be careful not to unintentionally insult a senior by offering to take over a strenuous task for them, and remember that most seniors can still enjoy a high degree of independence, even with some physical limitations due to age.
By gently approaching the topic of fall safety, and expressing a willingness to help out without making a senior feel pressured or talked down to, caregivers can remove much of the risk of a fall in a way that preserves a senior’s dignity.
Common tasks caregivers and younger loved ones can help with include anything involving climbing, lifting or carrying, as well as outdoor chores such as shoveling snow and washing the car. Offer to help with any task that requires a trip up or down the stairs, especially while carrying an object, and always be available to help on slippery or uneven surfaces.
Remember that many seniors do not ask for help, even if they feel it might be necessary. Offering assistance without prompting can make it easy for a senior to accept help and stay safe.
Move Hazardous Objects
Falls are dangerous enough for many seniors, but hard and sharp objects are especially hazardous.
People naturally grasp for nearby objects when they fall, and an exposed sharp edge or glass tabletop can inflict extra injuries during a fall. Likewise, exposed corners and hard surfaces, such as the brick skirt area in front of a fireplace, are an additional risk in case of a fall.
Caregivers and family members can help keep seniors safe by moving exposed hard and sharp surfaces, laying throw pillows over low-lying hard spots and attaching foam padding to corners and edges.
Upgrade the Bedroom
Many of the falls that cause senior admissions to the emergency room happen in the bedroom. Seniors with limited mobility or strength, weakness due to past strokes or medications that keep them from quickly waking up can easily fall out of bed and onto a hard floor.
To prevent this, many seniors sleep in a bed with collapsible rails and bedsheets that can be clipped or strapped to the mattress. These upgrades do not restrain seniors in bed or interfere with normal sleep, and any one of them could prevent a potentially life-threatening fall. It's also a good idea to set a soft mat next to the bed to cushion a fall and greatly reduce the risk of injury.
Some seniors have difficulty getting up after a fall from bed. Consider placing an emergency call button or pull cord close to the floor in the bedroom that a senior can reach without standing up or having to crawl to it.
Upgrade the Bathroom
Bathrooms are the other common room in the home where seniors often fall. Here, slippery floors and tight spaces covered in hard surfaces create a very hazardous environment for vulnerable seniors.
Consider installing a walk-in tub with a swing door built into it, so seniors don’t have to lift a leg over the wall of a bathtub. Shower chairs are a relatively inexpensive option for seniors who have a hard time standing in the shower for several minutes. Grab bars near the toilet, sink and shower give seniors a steady brace to hold onto while transitioning up and down, and soft rugs in likely fall spots can reduce the risk of a fall altogether.
Bathrooms are also a good place to install emergency call systems, which should be either pull-cord or voice-activated for seniors who can’t stand up after a fall.
Install Extra Lighting
Dark hallways and rooms without night-lights are full of tripping hazards. Seniors who get up at night to visit the bathroom or to take scheduled medication can easily stumble over objects left out in the dark.
Even during daylight hours, poorly lit areas of a home without windows or other sources of natural light can be hard to navigate by sight. One way to improve the safety of dark rooms is to install a night-light. It might also be worth leaving on a bathroom or hall light that can illuminate surrounding areas.
Arguably the most important thing caregivers and loved ones can do to help keep seniors safe from falls is pay attention. Ordinary mindfulness, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, makes spotting a potential fall hazard much more likely and helps prevent avoidable injuries.
Daily attention to a senior’s environment, wardrobe, medication schedule and state of awareness can make the difference between a fall that sends a senior to the emergency department and one that never happens because of a simple adjustment in advance.
Tips for Avoiding Falls
No list of fall prevention strategies can be exhaustive, but there are many other options for seniors to stay safe and reduce their risk of falling.
As a rule, seniors, caregivers and loved ones can help keep homes and seniors safe with:
- Balance and strength exercises that strengthen core muscles and improve seniors’ physical control
- Daily check-ins and frequent phone or in-person contact with at-risk seniors
- Personal contact with seniors' neighbors and other associates, especially people who are available on short notice to check in on at-risk seniors
- Clothing and safety equipment that can reduce the risk of injury from a fall, including padding and safety gear
- Stair lifts and/or elevators to assist seniors with stairs
- First aid kits for treating injuries sustained in a fall, including skin avulsions
- Call buttons with optional fall detection monitoring
Seniors have many resources available to help them stay safe, prevent falls and manage the cost of treatment after a fall occurs.
Knowing what resources are available can improve the safety of private homes and assisted living facilities as well as help seniors more quickly recover after a fall.
Medicare is the federal health insurance program for over 60 million Americans. All new Medicare beneficiaries are given a fall risk assessment as part of their intake process. Medicare is available in two parts, called A and B, which are especially helpful for seniors recovering from a fall.
Medicare Part A pays much of the cost for inpatient care in hospitals and post-acute nursing care. Emergency care, hospital admissions and necessary treatments while hospitalized are all included in Part A coverage. More than 90% of seniors aged 65 and over get all or part of their Part A benefits at no monthly cost.
Part B pays much of the cost for outpatient services. Seniors who are recovering from a recent fall may be able to get physical therapy and needed medical equipment through their optional Part B coverage. Part B can also assist with the cost of medical transportation, rehabilitation services and durable medical equipment, such as walkers, canes and wheelchairs.
Most seniors in the United States are automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A shortly before their 65th birthday. Part B coverage is optional, though many seniors opt into the program at the time their Part A benefits start. Eligible seniors can sign up for Medicare by calling 1-800-MEDICARE or by visiting a local Social Security Administration office.
Medicaid is a joint federal-state health insurance program for seniors with disabilities or low incomes.
Seniors who meet the income and asset limitations set by the state they live in, or who have a medical need, can get basic medical insurance through their state’s Medicaid program. Medicaid benefits include preventive and diagnostic services, necessary treatments and some prescription drugs.
Seniors can use Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of emergency medical care after a fall. Medicaid can also help pay for rehabilitation services during a recovery, as well as providing some nursing services.
Seniors whose prescription medications carry side effects that increase the risk of a fall may be able to use Medicaid’s prescription drug coverage to find alternative drugs that are less likely to contribute to a fall.
Seniors in most states can sign up for Medicaid at a Social Services office or a county Department of Health office. Some seniors apply for Medicaid shortly after hospitalization, when Medicaid is able to retroactively pay for services previously delivered. Seniors can also sign up for Medicaid benefits online at their state’s healthcare exchange.
Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) Waivers
Seniors who are eligible for Medicaid can often get help preventing falls with caregiver assistance delivered via a Home and Community Based Services (HCBS) waiver. HCBS waivers vary between states, but they generally support seniors who choose to live in their homes or in assisted living facilities.
Waivers can pay for personal caregiver assistance, transportation services and some home modifications, such as installation of ramps, rails and safety systems.
Seniors who receive Medicaid, or who meet their state’s Medicaid income and asset standards, can apply for an HCBS waiver through their Medicaid caseworker, or through the admissions desk at a participating assisted living facility. Applications may also be submitted through a Social Security office.
The Veterans Administration offers qualifying seniors multiple programs for home modifications and fall prevention. Seniors who served in the military and were honorably discharged, as well as their qualifying spouses and surviving widows, can apply for SAH, SHA and HISA grants.
Speak to a VA representative for information about the available programs, and to apply for help with home modifications. The VA also offers veterans its own version of an HCBS waiver, the Veterans Directed Home and Community Based Services waiver, which may be obtained through a local VA office.
Local Volunteer Programs
Many local and national nonprofit organizations offer volunteer services to help seniors live safely at home and prevent falls. These groups rarely contribute direct cash assistance or the cost of materials, though many do provide free labor to install ramps, rails and other home modifications.
Groups with national reach that might offer help reducing home fall risks include:
- Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts
- Local churches and synagogues
- Schools with a community service obligation, including high schools with IB programs
- Rotary, Lions and 4H clubs
- Some labor unions
- Fraternities and sororities at local universities
Information and Resources About Falls and Prevention