The best way to avoid a deadly or debilitating fall as you age is to understand the danger — and act on it.
That might seem like simple or even obvious advice. But it hasn’t been getting through to enough older adults and their families in Wisconsin, given our state’s worst-in-the-nation rate for fatal falls among people 65 and older.
State Journal medical reporter David Wahlberg‘s special report this week, “Fatal Falls | Wisconsin Leads Nation in Deadly Problem,” provided some much-needed attention and information about this growing public health threat.
More older adults die from falls in Wisconsin — 1,365 in 2016 — than from prostate and breast cancer combined among the general population. Falls also sent 129,000 older state residents to emergency rooms, and led to nearly 16,000 hospitalizations in 2017. Besides lost lives and devastating injuries, the cost includes more than $1 billion in medical charges, paid mostly by Medicare and Medicaid, which are taxpayer supported.
Wisconsin has twice the rate of fatal falls as the nation, and it’s only getting worse.
That’s why building public awareness of the risk is so important, because it encourages prevention. And on that score, Wahlberg’s series — with photography by Amber Arnold and John Hart, and a checklist for preventing falls by artist Jason Klein — definitely has succeeded.
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“I think you’re going to save some lives — the phone hasn’t stopped ringing this morning,” Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities Madison-Dane County, told the State Journal on Tuesday, when Wahlberg’s three-part series concluded. Safe Communities, at 608-441-3060, is a nonprofit coalition that helps older adults stay safe and independent.
Icy winters, excessive drinking and a graying population that’s living longer and more independently are all factors that help explain why fatal falls are so prevalent in Wisconsin. Yet more than half of the state’s deadly falls occur indoors, where the snow doesn’t fall. And a quarter occur at assisted living and nursing facilities.
That shows a lot more room for improvement.
Wahlberg highlighted Stepping On, a seven-week workshop that teaches exercises and offers tips to avoid falls. Safety advocates recommend medication reviews to ensure drugs aren’t impairing balance, and professional assessments of living spaces for potential obstacles. They encourage nightlights and phones in bedrooms, changes to footwear, grab rails in bathrooms, and non-slip rubber mats.
Gov. Tony Evers has included $250,000 for fall prevention and related programs in his state budget, which deserves bipartisan support from lawmakers.
More attention and prevention is needed to slow and reverse Wisconsin’s highest and increasing rate of deadly falls.