Falls are bad for seniors. Just ask Dr. Barbara Liu, a geriatrician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and executive director of the Regional Geriatric Program of Toronto.“ Falls can results in serious injury such as fractures and subdural hematoma (bleeding on the surface of the brain),” she says, adding that the psychological impact can be profound as well. “Fear of falling can lead people to restrict their activities.”

Aysha Bandali, Advanced Practice Leader-Nurse Practitioner, Residential and Aging in Place at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, agrees. “If you do have a fall it can change everything — it can be a downward spiral.”

One-third of seniors living in the community fall each year and half of them will fall more than once, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Many of these falls will lead to long stays in hospital, early admission to long-term care facilities, muscle atrophy and infections such as pneumonia brought on by prolonged bed rest. Worse, among seniors, 20% of deaths related to injury can be traced back to a fall.

Hazards in the home

And the home can be a dangerous place. Stairs and bathrooms are the top problem areas for falls. Perils listed in the Public Health Agency’s Keeping your home safe checklists include:

  • Stairs without handrails
  • Slippery floor surfaces such as stone or ceramic tile
  • Small rugs without underpadding
  • Poorly lit rooms
  • Kitchens with high shelves and little counter space
  • Rooms cluttered with furniture and other items that prevent easy passage
  • Bathrooms without grab bars or rails
  • Decks or patios with broken planks/stones

While some hazards are difficult to change, such as steep stairwells, there are many that can be addressed. And much of what you can do is inexpensive and fairly easy to undertake, says Liu. Consider these safety ideas:

  1. Add lighting to high-traffic areas to illuminate trip hazards, or motion-activated lights for nighttime bathroom visits, says Bandali.
  2. Install two railings on each side of a staircase for extra stability.
  3. Choose non-slip flooring, or apply a non-stick coating to existing flooring.
  4. Remove slippery throw rugs or anchor them with an underpad or two-sided tape.
  5. Add storage bins or lower shelving to kitchens where upper cabinets require a stepstool or chair to reach. This will allow easy access and prevent having to reach or climb up.
  6. Install bath seats in showers with a hand-held shower head, or attach grab bars to the wall and edge of the tub and adjacent to the toilet. Place non-skid mats in and around bathtubs.
  7. Station cordless phones throughout the home to reduce the need for rushing to answer a single unit. Set the ringer to maximum volume and at the longest ring setting.
  8. Instead of venetian blinds, opt for draperies or curtains that are easier to pull open without reaching.
  9. Spread out your furniture to allow easy movement through each room.
  10. Choose shoes that will help prevent slips, such as closed-back slippers with rubber soles.
  11. Build your core strength to help prevent back pain — and falls.

Another option is a personal response device that can sound an alarm if an elderly person falls in the home, says Bandali. Worn on the wrist or on a chain around the neck, it detects falls and will notify a monitoring firm — which in turn will call an ambulance.

And a good idea is a visit from an occupational therapist, who can assess the home and make safety recommendations, she says.