For elderly, falling down can be costly accident

A doctor tends to a 93-year-old woman.

Amanda Husberg laughs when I tell her she doesn't look like she could be seventy-three years old. “It's because I don't have a husband and I don't have kids,” she jokes.

Husberg and I are standing in the narrow hallway of her Brooklyn apartment. It's also her office space. She's remembering a scene from five years ago.

“I came here,” she tells me, “and I caught my toe at the edge of the rug. I went flying, and my right shoulder hit the chair.”

She hit the ground pretty hard, she couldn't get up on her own.

“I banged on the floor,” she says, “with SOS, bum bum bum, dum dum, bum bum bum.”

That SOS message got a neighbor's attention, and that neighbor got her to the hospital. Husberg had a broken shoulder, and ended up in a sling for four months.

Since then she's had a few more falls. She's spent $40,000 to make her home easier to get around. She also now pays for an emergency alert service, they'll send an ambulance any time she pushes the button on her wrist band. But Husberg still worries about falling again.

“My biggest fear,” she admits, “is loss of independence.”

The Center for Disease Control says every year about a third of seniors suffer from a fall. It's the most common injury that causes death for elderly people. Doctor Cathleen Colon-Emeric specializes in geriatrics at Duke University Medical Center. She says there are high costs to these falls.

“There's the cost of going to the doctor, going to the urgent care or emergency room,” she says. There are also costs for things like x-rays and stitches. Most falls add up to around ten to twenty thousand dollars. And a hip fracture?  That's about $18,000.

“And then,” Colon-Emeric tells me, “there are all the indirect costs, lost productivity, or needing more help around the home and having to have somebody else help you.”

Altogether, these losses come to around $30 billion a year in the U.S. Falls are twice as likely to happen in nursing homes. Which can lead to costly lawsuits.  

“Nursing home falls,” Colon-Emeric says, “are the second most common cause for litigation in nursing homes.”

She and her colleagues have come up with a new staff training program. It teaches how to better communicate about risky situations that can lead to falls.

“It may be monitoring their medications,” she explains, “or trying to improve their vision, or changing their environment.”

So far, nursing homes that have used her training have seen a 20 percent decline in fall rates.

About the author

Audrey Quinn is a reporter in New York City.

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