Bernie Schallehn was in the shower and about to rinse soap out of his eyes when he slipped and fell backwards. He landed outside the tub, but not before hitting his head on the bathroom counter. The 61-year-old grandfather wound up with two bumps on his head, but it could have been much worse.
"I think there was soap and shampoo residue in the tub that caused me to slip," says Schallehn, 61, a writer and grandfather in Voorheesville, New York. "I was also rushing. If I had it to do over again, I'd go slower and put my focus on maintaining good footing."
Although he and his wife talked about installing a bar in the shower, they never did. "However, now I usually wipe the floor of the tub before I shower to make sure it's not slick with shampoo, soap or other products," Schallehn says.
When it comes to making our homes safe, we typically think of replacing batteries in fire alarms, installing carbon monoxide detectors, and stowing away hazardous chemicals. But in reality, the biggest health hazard in our homes may be our feet – when they trip or slip.
A Potentially Lethal Life-Changer
Every year, more than 2.3 million older adults turn up in hospital emergency rooms for fall-related injuries, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Schallehn was lucky he only got some bumps—falls also result in 650,000 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 deaths every year.
"Falls are a huge issue, and the No. 1 life changer I see," says Sharon Brangman, MD, a geriatrician and professor of medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York.
A hip fracture can result in premature death, while head trauma can lead to blood clots in the brain. That’s what recently happened to Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton when she became dehydrated, fainted, fell, and hit her head.
While adults of all ages are vulnerable to falling, the impact is more severe on those who are older. "Sometimes the fall isn’t the worst of it," Brangman says. "It’s being on the floor for a period of time, and they can’t get to a phone. They might experience severe dehydration or a significant muscle problem from lying on floor for a long time."
How to Stay Safe at Home
Because most falls occur in the home, it’s important to keep your environment safe. It’s also important to practice being aware of your surroundings and your potential for a fall, Brangman says.