September 22, 2016, marked the first day of the fall season, a time to enjoy Maine’s beautiful foliage and crisp weather. It also was National Falls Prevention Day, a time to better educate seniors, families, and caregivers – as well as government and civic organizations – about the practices, programs, and policies that can be taken to reduce the risk of falls.
As Chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, I introduced the Senate Resolution calling for this designation – along with the Committee’s Ranking Member, Senator Claire McCaskill – to highlight the fact that falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults. Older adults are the fastest-growing segment of the United States’ population, and the number is projected to increase from 46.2 million in 2014 to 82.3 million in 2040. As more Americans age, falls will become even more numerous and costly than they are now.
In 2014, approximately 2.8 million older Americans were treated in emergency rooms after falling, and more than 800,000 were subsequently hospitalized. Tragically, more than 27,000 of them died as a result of their injuries.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these staggering statistics in a context that really brings the problem home: one out of every three seniors falls each year; every 13 seconds, a senior is treated in an emergency room for a fall; every 20 seconds, a senior dies from a fall.
In addition to the human toll, these falls generate enormous economic costs. The annual total direct medical cost of fall-related injuries for older adults is approximately $34 billion. As more members of the Baby Boomer generation reach retirement age, these costs could nearly double within the next five years.
Beyond the pain, suffering, and expense, falls can affect a senior’s ability to live independently and can lead to a compromised quality of life, and thus to isolation and depression. Many people who fall, even if they are not injured, can develop a fear of falling. This may cause them to limit their activities, resulting in reduced mobility and physical activity.
As a Senator representing the state with the oldest median age, I am especially concerned that Maine is eighth in the nation in the percentage of seniors who suffer falls. Seniors in Maine who fall experience an average medical cost of approximately $16,000, according to the most recent statistics available. Fortunately, there are many organizations throughout Maine, including several Area Agencies on Aging, that provide important fall prevention programs.
Our resolution urges relevant federal, state, and local organizations to work to help educate seniors about ways they can reduce the risks that may result from a fall, including injury and even death. The resolution also recognizes that evidence-based programs reduce falls by using cost-effective strategies, such as exercise programs, medication management, vision improvement, reduction of home hazards, and fall prevention education. Family members and other caregivers can also help seniors evaluate their homes for fall-inducing hazards and modify their living space with adequate lighting and assistive devices, such as grab bars in the shower or tub, to help ensure a safe environment.
There are more steps we can take. The costs of even minor modifications like grab bars and hand rails can add up quickly, while more expensive projects such as widening doorways or installing a ramp are financially unrealistic for far too many seniors. Several existing federal programs can help seniors make these needed modifications to their homes, but few seniors are aware of them. To address this issue, I have joined Senators Angus King of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire in sponsoring the Senior Home Modification Assistance Initiative Act, which would improve awareness and better coordinate existing federal programs.
Falling is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Practical lifestyle adjustments, evidence-based prevention programs, community partnerships, and continued research are among the tools available to reduce falls. Fall-related injuries have a devastating impact on the lives of our seniors, their families, and their communities. Our goal is to unite professionals, older adults, caregivers, and family members so that they might all play a part in raising awareness and preventing falls.