Innovations could drastically reduce seniors’ fall-related injuries

Innovations could drastically reduce seniors’ fall-related injuries

Roy Atamanuk vividly remembers his last big fall.

It was U.S. Thanksgiving and the 73-year-old retired lawyer from St. Catharines, Ont., was visiting his daughter in Buffalo, N.Y. He recalls waking up at night, walking toward the bedroom door on his way to the washroom. And then he hit the floor.

“It’s kind of bewildering,” he said, thinking back to the Thanksgiving fall, the bathtub fall last summer and the Florida vacation fall before that. “You’re laying there and wondering what happened, what’s going to happen and how bad it will be.”

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2002, Mr. Atamanuk’s balance has steadily failed in recent years.

“It worries me,” he said, “but what are you gonna do?”

A group of Simon Fraser University researchers may have the answer. Determined to break the impact of seniors’ falls on Canadian society, the Injury Prevention and Mobility Lab team say “gerontechnology” can drastically reduce the rate of fall-related injuries among seniors. Innovations such as bouncy flooring can reduce hip fractures and slash the Canadian government’s $3-billion annual bill for fall-related injuries, they say.

Serious fall-related injuries such as hip fractures account for thousands of Canadian seniors being bedridden and dependent on care-givers every year. Often, a hip fracture is “the beginning of a cascade of events that often results in death,” said Fabio Feldman, SFU researcher and the Fraser Health Authority manager of falls and injury prevention.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Health, one in five Canadian seniors who suffer a hip fracture die within a year of the injury, and more than half of seniors with hip fractures never fully recover.

“It’s a major issue in Canada because of the aging population and the consequences of falls,” Dr. Feldman said, “so we’re trying to provide interventions to prevent injury.”

Last year, doctors referred Mr. Atamanuk to the Niagara Safety at Home initiative – part of the Ontario government’s four-year, $1.1-billion Aging at Home strategy to relieve pressure on hospitals and care homes. The Niagara home safety program provides seniors with free home assessments and fall prevention tips.

A Safety at Home co-ordinator visited Mr. Atamanuk’s home in January with an extensive home-safety checklist. Touring the house, the co-ordinator encouraged him to throw away scatter rugs and install grab bars near stairways.

Stephen Robinovitch, lead researcher at the SFU lab, criticized the home assessment program, a widely promoted practice and a major element of the Canadian Public Health Agency of Canada’s best practice guide to reducing the risk of falls. He calls it just plain “common sense.”

“People focus on that because it’s easy,” he said. “There’s no research to prove that this type of intervention actually reduces falls.”

Instead, SFU researchers – partnering with the Vancouver Centre for Hip Health and Fraser Health – are pushing for a shift in dialogue from fall prevention to injury prevention, Dr. Feldman said.

“It’s okay for seniors to fall but we just don’t want to see injuries,” he said. “That’s our focus now.”

According to Dr. Robinovitch, preventing fall-related injuries must include bone strength, fitness and good diet. But the team of researchers also encourage high-tech gizmos like the SFU-designed hip protector – a horseshoe-shaped foam pad – to help seniors bounce back.

The team is now looking beyond hip protectors to energy-absorbing, bouncy floor products. It’s “the way of the future,” Dr. Feldman said.

The biomedical engineers tested 14 floor coverings, looking at each product’s energy absorption capacity and how floor softness affects balance. Some soft floors can negatively affect seniors’ balance and mobility, Dr. Feldman said.

Researchers narrowed their study to SorbaSHOCK and Seamless Attenuating Technologies, two U.S.-made cushioned flooring. According to SFU tests, both floors can absorb up to 50 per cent of the energy of a fall, compared to 25 per cent absorbed by most hip protectors.

Dr. Feldman then introduced the Seamless Attenuating Technologies floor to two long-term care homes in the Fraser Health region. The floor, able to bounce a raw egg, was traditionally used to reduce fatigue among workers required to stand for long periods of time.

According to a Public Health Agency of Canada report, nearly half of all long-term care residents in Canada fall each year and one in ten of those falls result in serious injury. Results from the SFU floor-testing study state that bouncy floors could reduce hip fractures by more than 80 per cent.

Dr. Feldman, hoping to introduce the floors to more private and public healthcare facilities, said that installing a bouncy floor costs about three times as a normal floor, but costs would balance out in the long run given the enormous price of fall-related injuries.

For Mr. Atamanuk, there’s no future for injury-preventing bouncy floors in his house.

“It sounds expensive,” he said. “And besides, I’m not that bad.”

Instead, he’ll continue to fight his failing balance with a therapeutic exercise class held every Monday afternoon.