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Preventing elderly falls: Saving lives and money

Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury and fracture for seniors. That number is expected to rise as the population ages.

Every 20 minutes an older adult dies from injuries sustained from a fall. In fact, falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury and fracture for seniors. The annual medical costs of treating people who fall is an estimated $30 billion. That number is expected to rise as the population ages.

“I laid in the yard for about two and a half hours before the next-door neighbor saw me laying there,” Sarah Grant recalled.

“I had fallen so often, and I was on a first-name basis with the firefighters,” said Patricia Bersche.

Grant and Bersche laugh about it now, but falls are frightening and common for older adults. In fact, older adults without any risk factors have a 25% to 33% chance of falling, but there are things you can do to decrease your risk of falling.

Dr. Susan Stark, an occupational therapist at Washington University in St. Louis, spearheaded a study to see if in-home behavioral intervention changed the odds of falling.

“It can be things like adding a grab rail or changing the way you do something like turning on a light before you walk down the stairs,” Stark said.

Emily Somerville, from Washington University in St. Louis, visited Grant three times. She witnessed firsthand what Grant was doing that put her in harm’s way.

“So, we added this grab bar here for these two steps as she comes down or up the stairs, down here,” Somerville explained.

Other simple but effective solutions include adding a grab bar for getting in and out of the shower and on and off the toilet and adding a tub bench that can also help you get in and out safely. Stark’s study saw a 40% reduction in falls.

“So, we didn’t only reduce falls, we actually reduced overall health care costs,” said Stark.

The study found they were saving over $2 on medical care for every dollar spent in prevention.

The average per-person cost of intervention was $765, and per-person declines in health care costs were estimated to be $1,613. While there is evidence to support the cost-benefit of home modification in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany, this study is the first to demonstrate the effectiveness of a community-based approach in the United States.