Believe it or not, but every year about 17,000 adults ages 65 and older end up in the emergency room after taking a tumble out of their comfy recliner chairs, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Home mishaps account for most of an estimated 2.9 million annual injuries sustained by adults 65-plus that are serious enough to require hospital treatment. About 3,800 of them are fatal, according to a 68-page report released by the commission.
The report, based on data collected from 2016 to 2020, found accidents that cause serious injuries to older adults can happen in the most mundane ways. Some mishaps involve interactions with stairs, doors and windows, or in other cases furniture, appliances, lawn-care equipment and kitchen cutlery. Backyard pools and spas, fitness gear, bicycles, e-scooters and off-road recreational vehicles figure in accidents as well. The report does not include automobile accidents.
Wendy Shields, an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy, notes that home mishaps can be more serious for older people. “They are more likely to have chronic conditions and take more medications, which make their recovery more difficult,” she said.
Some of the most common hazards are what you might expect. About 1.5 million older Americans are injured each year from falls that often happen when they lose their balance on floors and stairs, or when they fall [out of bed. ER treatment for such mishaps is six times more likely for 65-and-older adults than for younger people.
Older adults are also 3½ times more likely to die in fires than the rest of the population, according to the report. On average, 930 lose their lives each year in blazes that often result from smoking or cooking.
Other home hazards may not be so obvious. Here are five that may surprise you — and ways they can be avoided.
1. Reclining chairs
At a rate of 32.6 per 100,000, adults 65 and older are more than 12 times as likely to be injured falling out of a recliner than adults between 25 and 64, according to the report.
Shunaka White, an occupational therapist and certified aging-in-place specialist from Stafford, Virginia, says chair design is often the culprit.
“The manual ones with old-fashioned cranks abruptly take them from reclined to upright sitting,” she says. “Sometimes it kind of throws them out of the chair.” She recommends chairs with power controls, which allow a more controlled shift.
2. Televisions and bookshelves
About 3,200 older adults annually end up in the emergency room after a home appliance, television or furniture piece tips over and falls on them. While their accident rate is only slightly higher than younger adults, people 65 and older are eight times as likely to be hurt so seriously that they require hospitalization.
White, who advises clients on home modifications to avoid accidents, notes that older adults may cause furniture to tip over when they grab or lean on something for stability. She suggests hiring a professional installer to mount TV sets to the wall with brackets. The same goes for other tipping hazards like large bookshelves. It’s important to use a stud-finder device to make sure that the items are connected solidly — and not just to the drywall, says White.
3. Cans or containers
Falling cans and containers dislodged from shelves or cabinets typically send more than 45,000 older people to the emergency room each year, and they’re 3.7 times as likely as younger people to suffer injuries serious enough to require a hospital stay. White recommends that you declutter shelves and store items at waist or shoulder height rather than overhead. She also suggests using rolling carts rather than high shelves.
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4. Exercise equipment
Nearly 71,000 older adults go to the emergency room each year for injuries related to working out or exercise equipment, and they suffer injuries requiring hospitalization 2.9 times as often as younger people.
White recommends ditching baggy workout clothing and making sure that shoelaces are secure, so that you don’t get tangled in your equipment. She also suggests not overexerting yourself, because fatigue makes you more vulnerable to accidents. “It’s OK to get off and recover, and then resume exercise,” White says.
About 35,000 older adults each year suffer cuts from knives and other kitchen utensils that require emergency room treatment. While their injury rate is half that of younger adults, they’re 2.6 times more likely to need hospitalization.
White notes that injuries are often sustained while chopping or dicing vegetables. She advises letting an electric food chopper or processor do the work. “They do a very good job, and it reduces the risk for injury,” White says.
Better yet, she suggests skipping the entire chore. “An easy recommendation is just purchasing prechopped veggies, whether they’re frozen or fresh,” she says.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission offers this free booklet and a handy single-page list of recommendations on safety for older Americans, including a checklist for inspecting your home to eliminate falling and fire hazards.
Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jones, and websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.