Falling down might sound like a minor mishap, but for older adults (age 65 and up), it can be serious—or even fatal. It’s also common: More than 1 in 4 older adults report falling each year—and more than half of these falls occur at home.
In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted more than 2.8 million emergency department visits due to injuries from falls among older adults in 2020. (To put that into perspective, that’s more than three times as many as in the next age group down, those 55 to 64.) Falling was also responsible for more than 36,000 deaths.
The fallout from a fall could be anything from bumps and bruises to broken bones and traumatic brain injury. “Not all falls will result in an injury that sends you to the emergency room or the hospital, but about 20% of falls that happen among those aged 65 and older will result in an injury,” says Kathleen Cameron, senior director of the National Council on Aging’s Center for Health Aging.
Even the fear that you might fall can be dangerous if it prevents you from leaving your house or being active. “It’s kind of a vicious cycle, because the less that older adults engage in physical activity, the more they’re going to develop muscle weakness and balance issues, which are two of the most common risk factors for falls,” Cameron says.
To head off the falls and the fear, the first place to start is in your home. Below are five common parts of your house that can present a fall risk. Also, find out how you can make your space safer without spending too much money.
How to prevent falls in your house
Your house can be full of objects and surfaces that can put you at risk for tripping, slipping, and falling. Here are five potential hazards and what you can do to secure them.
Fall Risk #1: Rugs
While decorative, rugs can also be dangerous. To lessen your risk for tripping or sliding, add a nonslip backing or use tacks or double-sided tape to fix them to the floor. The same goes for doormats and bathroom mats.
Of course, you can also remove rugs, doormats, and bathroom mats altogether if they pose a risk—but if you have wood floors or another slippery surface underneath them, be sure to wear sneakers or slippers with traction on them when you’re walking across those surfaces to decrease your chances of slipping.
Fall Risk #2: The Bathroom
Stepping into your bathtub or shower can be hazardous. It can be slick from a recent shower, and if you must step into it, you could easily trip. Stepping out of it can be dangerous, too, when you’re wet and surfaces might be slicker.
Even the toilet can pose a risk—falls often happen if you’re unsteady when you stand up or sit down. Older adults who have high blood pressure, for example, can feel lightheaded or unsteady on their feet when standing up.
One solution is installing grab bars or handrails near the shower or toilet. “It’s amazing how grab bars have changed in the last decade or so,” says Cameron. “They’re quite decorative; they don’t look institutional and are so important for added support and safe movement in the bathroom.”
While you’re at it, add a nonslip rubber mat or even a shower chair to your tub. And if you often get up at night to go to the bathroom, an inexpensive night-light can light up your path. Some come on automatically in the dark or have built-in motion sensors for even better protection.
Fall Risk #3: Stairs
This might seem obvious, but your stairs have a lot of risk attached to them. Cameron recommends lights at both the top and bottom of stairways so you can see where you’re stepping.
Is the stairway still a little too dark? “A simple strategy is to put a strip of painter’s tape on the edge of each step,” she says. “That will mark each step along the way, which is especially helpful for people who find it hard to distinguish one step from another, which for some can blur together.” You can even buy tape that’s reflective or has a glow-in-the-dark strip.
Also, take a look at your banisters on indoor and outdoor steps. They can’t help you climb stairs safely if they’re missing, loose, or hard to grab on to. Cameron recommends having properly installed handrails on both sides of a stairway.
Fall Risk #4: Clutter
Those old magazines you keep meaning to read. The shoes you left by the door. Those big boxes you walk around in the garage or laundry room. All that clutter represents a tripping hazard.
When you reduce clutter, you reduce risk. Move anything that gets in your way, especially in the areas where you walk most often, like the path from room to room.
Fall Risk #5: Stepladders
Getting up a ladder to clean out the gutters is obviously dangerous. But even the small stepladder you use to reach the top shelf in the pantry or kitchen can pose a risk.
Rearrange your kitchen, bathroom, and linen closet so that way the things you need to reach every day are at waist level. And ask for help when you need help with something that’s up high, such as taking down seasonal decorations or changing a light bulb in a ceiling fixture.
If you’re determined to do tasks yourself, make sure your stepladder has wide steps so you can plant your entire foot. The ladder should also have grippy surfaces on the steps and a grab bar. Be sure to place the ladder on a flat, level service. But don’t ever hesitate to ask for help. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Bonus Fall Risk: You!
Falling isn’t an automatic part of getting older, but ,your risk of falling can be increased by things like reduced physical activity, poorer vision, chronic illnesses, and the medications you might rely on.
For example, over-the-counter medications like Benadryl or Tylenol PM contain diphenhydramine. Dizziness and drowsiness are common side effects.
“[These medications] are something that those of us who work in aging do not recommend at all, yet many older adults pick them up over the counter,” Cameron says. “Or their family members might pick them up because sleep issues are common among seniors.”
Sitting around a lot is also a solvable problem. Cameron recommends a training program like A Matter of Balance, which is offered at senior centers and many other places across the country. Yoga and tai chi are other options that can help strengthen your core and stability.
“Tai chi, which has been around for thousands of years, has been well studied,” Cameron says. “It’s shown to reduce falls by as much as 55% if practiced over 24 weeks.”
If you’re an older adult, or anyone who’s at risk of falling, now’s the time to spruce up your home. Prevent falls with a few changes that keeps the danger zones at a minimum.