South County Fire staffers give valuable safety advice for Falls Prevention Week

South County Fire Community Outreach Manager Shawneri Guzman speaks to a group last week as part of Falls Prevention Week.

One out four adults age 65 and older in the U.S. will likely experience at least one fall, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While women are more likely than men to seek treatment for fall injuries, they are also more likely to talk to their doctors about falls and ask about fall prevention programs than men. 

In observance of Falls Prevention Week, firefighters from South Snohomish County Fire and Rescue conducted several fall prevention classes last Wednesday and Thursday as part of its free monthly Senior Strolls. These classes are part of its community outreach programs, which includes safe driving for teens, CPR and first aid, and home and workplace safety.

“Once you fall the first time, your chance of falling again increases by 50%,” said South County Fire Community Outreach Manager Shawneri Guzman, who taught a class at the Lynnwood Fire Department with Community Resource Specialist Larry Hadland. “Once you’ve fallen two times, your risk of getting hospitalized increases by 50%. With each subsequent fall, the risk is raised again and again. This is where we have the chance of losing our mobility and ability to live independently.” 

Guzman mentioned that one major reason why the risk increases with each fall is because people become more fearful of falling, which makes them more likely to be inactive. This can reduce muscle strength, stability, balance and coordination, which can increase the risk of any fall.

South County Fire Community Resource Specialist Larry Hadland presents information to prevent falls during a class at the Lynnwood Fire Department last week.

The Washington State Department of Health reported that more than 90,500 adults at age 62 and older experienced at least one fall in 2020, and 62% of these falls happened at home. In Washington state, nearly 20,000 seniors were hospitalized for a fall-related injury. About 49% of injury-related deaths for seniors are from unintentional falls.

In addition, a 2018 study of more than 19,000 middle-age women (ages 40 to 64) in Ireland, Netherlands, the U.K., and Australia found that the risk of falling increases by 9% in the early forties, 19% in mid to late forties, 21% in early fifties, 27% in mid to late fifties, year olds and 30% in the early sixties. Thus, people who suffer from a bad fall earlier in life may have a higher risk of falling later in life than those who have not experienced such a fall.

To reduce the risk falls, the South County Fire suggests:

Regular exercise: While going to the gym or joining an exercise can be helpful, Guzman said that something as simple as walking is usually enough to reduce the risk of falls. 

“Exercise can be intentional or incorporate it into your daily life,” said Guzman. “Walking is the most important thing. When we stop walking, we lose mobility—even if it’s just walking to your mailbox or doing laps around the house.”

Get your eyes checked: Guzman suggests that seniors should get their vision checked at least once every two years—or ideally, once a year. 

“Make sure you have up-to-date glasses, and keep your glasses by the bedside,” she recommended. “If you go to the restroom at night, we want you to put your glasses on, even if you can walk there with your eyes closed. A lot of falls happen at night. You don’t really put your cell phone in your pajama pocket, and you could be in the hallway or bathroom for hours before anyone knows that you’ve fallen and can’t get up.”

Improve home safety: “Walking paths, non-slip mats, grab bars,” Hadland listed some of the things that seniors should have at home. He said that anything that can be a trip or slip hazard should be removed, including throw rugs and loose flooring.

“If you can move it with your foot, it’s best to remove it,” he recommended.

Take it easy: This simply means being more aware of the surroundings and taking the time to move around. In other words, don’t rush. 

There are several ways to help avoid falls, as shown by these posters.

“Keep your brain in alignment with your feet,” Hadland said. “A lot of our clients, their brain is going half a mile faster than their feet can keep up. They’re going too fast and that’s why they fall. And then they break their hip and now they’re in a skilled nursing facility for two months.”

While adding safety features to a home may be feasible for some seniors, Hadland pointed out that sometimes downsizing and moving to a home that is less risky for falls is a better option. He said that he and wife live in a house that was built in 1948, and the previous homeowner raised the house up by 7 feet to get better access to the basement from the outside. A narrow, rickety 13-step staircase was built that descends into the tiled floor of the basement.

“In a few years, we’re gonna be 70. We’re not gonna be living in that house in our 70s,” he said. “While [having] a second grab rail [for the stairs] is great, the next conversation to have is when am I gonna start looking around for the next highest level of independence that’s gonna be safer and carry me in the next 10years.” 

South County Fire also offers to inspect seniors’ homes to assess the risk of falls and fire hazards. This includes checking smoke alarms, lighting, and trip hazards.

“Our ethos is that older adults should live in an environment that’s safe, healthy and socially connected to the best of their ability to live in their highest independence,” Hadland said.

— Story and photos by Nick Ng

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