PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Unintentional falls are the No. 1 cause of deadly injuries among Florida's seniors.
All-night long on WPTV's assignment desk scanners, we hear dozens of calls to dispatch first responders to help people who have fallen.
WPTV's In-Depth team started digging into why it's happening so often and what you can do to protect yourself or an aging loved one.
Living with rheumatoid arthritis, Laurel Miller has fallen a few times during flare-ups. She said it worried her son.
"We were at the point where he was talking to me about maybe we need to get some lifts for you, a pushchair," Miller said. "I thought, I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that yet."
The reality is falls are the second most frequent call for service Palm Beach County Fire Rescue receives. In Delray Beach, it’s the number one call.
"If we're transporting a fall call, it's a serious situation," Travis Franco, Delray Beach assistant fire chief and fire marshal, said.
In South Florida, a lot of those responses start off with a call from an out-of-state family member.
"It will be, 'Hey, I've tried to reach my mom for the last couple hours,'" Franco said. "I can't make contact with her."
Data provided by the Area Agency on Aging showed that in Palm Beach County falls were the cause of 250 deaths in 2020, putting nearly 5,000 people in the hospital, and resulting in 14,000 emergency room visits.
"Once you take that first fall, then you're afraid," Diane Lundstedt, tai chi for seniors instructor with the Area Agency on Aging, said.
To lessen that fear, the organization in Palm Beach and the Treasure Coast offers programs and classes for seniors.
Laurel said ever since she started the tai chi class, she's avoiding mistakes that could lead to a fall.
"Keeping mindful of the step, putting the toes up and putting the heel down first," Miller said. "This helps us avoid tripping over tree roots or parts of the sidewalk that might be elevated."
Maureen McCarthy, healthy living program director with the Area Agency on Aging, said seniors who complete the program are 52% less likely to fall.
"We all know the shuffle," McCarthy said. "We start walking, the shuffle. Once you start doing that, you have stopped using the muscles in your ankles."
The Florida Department of Health shares other ways to reduce the chance of falling: exercise regularly, check your vision once a year, make your home environment safer, i.e. no slippery floors or loose rugs, and review medications that can make you weak or dizzy with a doctor.
Falling isn't entirely preventable, but you can take the following steps to prepare:
- Make sure there’s a way for first responders to get access into your home quickly. In Delray Beach, Fire Rescue just launched a lockbox program.
- Look into using a life alert system or a smartwatch, which can detect a fall and call for help
- Call your local fire department to do an in-home survey and look for any fall hazards inside
Falling can lead to serious health complications, and in some cases, the outcomes can be worse.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about one in four adults in the U.S. over the age of 65 falls every year. The CDC said falling results in more than 95% of hip fractures. Recovering from a hip fracture is difficult and living an independent life afterward is unlikely.
"It's usually the decline of a person's health forever once you have a fall," added McCarthy.
McCarthy said it's important for family members of seniors to get involved early to prevent a fall.
"Usually it's not until a fall happens that family members go, 'Oh, what should we be doing?'" McCarthy said.
David Anafi participates in the tai chi class for seniors. He suffers from vertigo, and it led to a serious fall that has changed the way he moves around his home.
"I was quite aware all the years that as you get older, you may fall, but you never, never understood it," Anafi said.
He said younger adults don't see the risks around their parents' or older relatives' homes; mobility and reaction time play a role but so do hazards.
First responders suggest tidying up your home; there should be no cords or cables near walkways. Then, use grips to hold loose rugs in place. You can also install handrails in bathrooms to avoid slipping.
"Family members need to help give the extra little push," McCarthy said.
If a loved one won't use a system like Life Alert, consider getting them a smartwatch that can detect a fall and call for help.
"Usually, the fall isn't the thing that puts that person in the worst shape, it's usually laying on the floor for hours and not being able to get up," she added.
Tripping over pets is another common cause of falls, she said. McCarthy said you should always be aware of where your pet is in your home.
The programs offered by the Area Agency on Aging are free, and if you can't go to class in person, they're also offered virtually. Click here to view upcoming events.
The Area Agency on Aging screened a documentary on falls on Sept. 9.
The Health Care District of Palm Beach County is inviting senior groups, nursing homes and adult communities to request free training.
Click here to complete a form to request the training.