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More Seniors Means More Falls, More Deaths

November 26, 2014

Americans are living longer due to advances in medicine, but the physical safety of the elderly population is becoming even more precarious.

According to a New York Times article published in late October, “The number of people over 65 who died after a fall reached nearly 24,000 in 2012 […], almost double the number ten years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” In total, from 2002—2012, “more than 200,000 Americans over 65 died after falls.” Feldman Shepherd Partner, Ezra Wohlgelernter notes that “our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is not just a sign of economic stagnation it presents a serious risk to public safety.”

The New York Times piece cited in the previous paragraph notes that preventing falls is serious business, and that retirement, nursing, and other assisted-living facilities are spending large amounts of money on emergency signal pendants to be worn around a resident’s neck, in-floor lighting to direct residents to doors and restrooms, flooring that absorbs energy from falling bodies, and alarms that call staff members when they detect an impact. These facilities also carefully measure and study the heights of beds, chairs, and toilets, the placement of furniture, whether furniture will fall if grabbed for support, and even whether rugs are in areas that pose a tripping risk to residents. One California retirement community considers anything one-eighth of an inch or higher to be a tripping hazard.

Another trend that has emerged recently in such facilities is high-contrast trimming, in which designers, builders, painters, residents, and staff work together to determine optimum placement of strips of tape or lines of paint marking steps, toilet seats, and shower edges. Often professionals survey such buildings wearing darkened and yellow-tinted glasses (sometimes smeared with Vaseline) to simulate the yellowing vision of the elderly, many of whom also suffer from cataracts and glaucoma.

While anticipating falls indoors and on a property’s sidewalks is one thing, the director of engineering for a nonprofit that runs retirement facilities explains that “the minute you leave our shell, you’re in the wild.” This is especially true in Pennsylvania, which has tough limited immunity laws when it comes to slipping and falling on publicly owned or maintained property.

In some slip-and-fall or trip-and-fall cases, an attorney must prove that there is a defect in the real estate itself. For example, if an elderly person slips and falls on snow or ice on Commonwealth-owned property, he or she has no legal recourse through the civil justice system. The Commonwealth is immune for negligently created hazards on public property. To add insult to injury, Pennsylvania has tort limitations on damages in such cases: someone who falls must prove that he or she has a permanent injury and medical expenses in excess of $1,500. This prevents many seniors from being able to bring claims against the state to cover medical bills related to fractures and tears, which may not be permanent or expensive, but which are still painful and long-lasting.

Living longer does not automatically translate to living with greater safety. The cost of treatment of the elderly for disabling injuries is far more expensive than the cost of remediating dangerous conditions of public sidewalks.

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