Governments must ‘get skates on’ over elderly slips

By Fiona West

Governments must act quickly to prevent a looming epidemic of fall-related deaths and injuries among elderly people, a leading Monash University injury prevention expert has warned.

Director of the Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit (VISU) at the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC), Erin Cassell, says although her research only relates to Victoria, she believes the message is applicable to all Australian governments.

The study, Preventing injury in Victorian seniors aged 65 years and older, shows a 43 per cent increase in the rate of people aged 65 and older who suffer fall-related deaths.

“Falls are the leading cause of serious injury in Victorian seniors aged 65 and older,” she says.

“In addition to this, 60 per cent of injury deaths in seniors are fall related, and (in 2006) there were 21,000 hospital admissions and 158,000 bed days, so it is putting a lot of pressure on hospital beds, which is of concern to government.”

The data shows seniors stay in hospital an average of seven days after being admitted with a fall injury.

Ms Cassell says the main concern with these statistics is that they are on the rise.

“We found that the rate of hospitalisations has been going up 2 per cent per year for the last 10 years, so this is the worrying thing, and that indicates that we are not doing enough or investing enough in preventing falls in this age group.

"The demand on emergency departments, hospitals and aged care facilities is tremendous and will balloon out further if these rates are not arrested."

Ms Cassell says governments have recently employed a number of initiatives to prevent fall injuries, including exercise programs to address seniors' balance and strength, promoting the wearing of hip protectors, consumption of Vitamin D and calcium supplements, and reducing the use of medications associated with falls, such as sleeping pills.

“But the problem is we are not doing enough of those things,” she says.

“The penetration into the older age group is just not sufficient to actually cause the rate to go down. There are not enough older people doing them. It takes a huge effort to get older people to exercise, for example.

“Given that the baby boomers are now moving, and are going to be over 70 in 10 years’ time, we really have to get our skates on.

“The cost is to the government, the fact that they will be putting enormous pressure on hospital beds, and also to families and carers, and to elderly themselves, with their loss of independence.

“Our efforts have to intensify. We know there are things we can do but we just have to invest more in prevention.”

Ms Cassell says the Victorian data has been sent to the National Injury Surveillance Unit in Adelaide, which is looking at how this state compares with others.

“We suspect that there could be the same trend to an increase in the hospital admissions rate but that is being investigated.”

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