Accidents: Causes and Prevention

Winter 2007 CSANews Issue 65  |  Posted date : May 22, 2008.Back to list

Having spent 25 years as an Ontario coroner and 15 years involved in insurance claims by travelling Canadians who suffer from accidents, I am acutely aware of the types of incidents to which seniors are subject, especially while on their winter vacation. While the majority of medical emergencies are largely non-preventable in the short term, most accidents are preventable. Many are serious and, because of our decreasing resilience in recovering from such incidents as we age, delayed recovery, complications and even death may ensue. Many snowbirds, concerned with their medical conditions, spend little time reflecting on the things which they can do to prevent accidents, particularly when away from home. Here's what to watch for and how to prevent an accident.

Safety begins at home
Falls are the most common cause of seniors' injuries in Canada. As we age, we all develop some degree of osteoporosis, making us more vulnerable to fractures. A fractured hip can be a life-threatening condition and in many cases, leads to the loss of independent living because of the permanent loss of mobility. The fact is that most falls are preventable. To reduce this risk, we must adapt our environment, our lifestyle and our behaviour.

Keeping physically active is one of the best long-term actions that we can take for avoiding falls. Because unsteadiness and inactivity put us at greater risk for a fall, a daily exercise regimen, especially walking, is essential in keeping us physically fit and maintaining the strength and balance needed for warding off falls. The Canadian Medical Association has recently reported research which shows that participation in tai chi once a week among individuals older than 60 results in a lower risk of falls.

Whether your home is in Canada or your southern destination, here are reminders of important physical safety measures that you can take:
  • Is the lighting adequate in your home, especially at night?
  • Is there a "nightlight" on when getting up at night?
  • Are rooms and hallways free of obstacles and things that you could trip on?
  • Are there any mats that can slide and slip?
  • Is there a rubber mat in the bathtub?
  • Are there grab-bars at the toilet and in the bathtub?
  • Are there adequate handrails on any staircases?
  • Is the flooring surface non-slippery?
  • Do you have the walkway and entrance to your house maintained to be free of ice and snow in the winter?
  • Do you consider any of these factors when you travel and when you choose your winter destination?
  • Do you avoid climbing on chairs and other unstable objects to reach things?
  • Do you have a properly stocked first aid kit?
  • Are you getting enough exercise to maintain muscle strength and your stability?
Outside environment
In addition to these home safety tips, particular attention should be paid to your outside environment, especially when away from home. Although you may be fortunate in escaping the risk of falling on ice and snow during the winter months, unfamiliar surroundings can be just as risky. Our claims experience shows that many travellers suffer accidental falls over curbs, potholes, obstructions in stores, wet and slippery floors and uneven ground. Be cautious and familiarize yourself with potential risks. Use a cane with a proper rubber tip or walker if you have limitations in balance or mobility. Wear comfortable anti-skid footwear. Lower heels are more comfortable and safer. If you are already disabled from a stroke or other disease, be certain to take extra precautions in all these preventive measures and always use your cane or walker.

And remember that inappropriate alcohol consumption can affect your balance, especially if you have any problem to begin with. Furthermore, any alcohol is contraindicated with certain medications.

During your trip by car, you should pay particular attention to your motel accommodations. Each year, we receive calls from clients who have accidents at their motel. Such statements as, "I did not see the door ledge," "The bathtub was so slippery" and "It was dark and I tripped over the bedspread" are recorded by our assistance staff. Be certain to assess your surroundings upon arrival and take necessary precautions to avoid injury.

Proper administration of medications
Accidents also happen with medication. Be sure that you take care in proper administration of your medications, especially when away from home and your usual medical providers. These are the tips:
  • Keep a document in your wallet or purse recording the exact name, strength and dosage of all your medications, both prescribed and non-prescribed.
  • If taking more than a few medications, purchase and use a daily compartment pill container that reminds you of proper daily use.
  • Know your drugs, their names and purpose.
  • Be sure to take an adequate supply to last for the duration of your whole trip.
  • If you run out of a prescribed drug while away, be sure to get a new supply.
  • Consult a local physician if you suspect a drug reaction.
  • Take your medication as prescribed.
If you are travelling by car, these precautions will help you avoid a motor vehicle collision. Plan for adequate time to get to your destination. For many, the trip may be well over 1,000 or 2,000 miles. Driving can be tiring and adequate nightly rest is essential. If tired while driving, pull over and a have a "nap" or stop for the day. Avoid driving in poor weather, especially snow and freezing rain. Plan your departure only after assuring yourself that the weather will not make driving treacherous.

Don't drive at night. Our reflexes are less acute than when we were young and external dangers such as limited visibility and impaired drivers present greater risks. While driving, be sure to stop at least every two hours. It is important to get out and walk around to reduce the risk of a clot developing in the leg (deep venous thrombosis). Getting a beverage and some nutrition is also important. This advice is important for lengthy air flights as well. Share the driving with your spouse. Statistics show that since men do most of the driving and women most often outlive men, their inexperience when obligated to drive alone can be a serious detriment, unless both continue to share the driving at home and away.

Other safety tips when driving to or from your vacation site include certain security measures, such as the following:
  • Do not drive in dimly lit streets or areas of suspected high crime.
  • Lock your doors and keep windows up.
  • Other than a Canadian licence plate, do not draw attention to yourself as being a foreigner.
  • Park in a well-lit area as close to the motel entrance as possible.
  • Keep valuables with you and try to cover any belongings left in your vehicle.
  • Avoid rush-hour traffic.
  • When in public, hide cameras and expensive jewellery and avoid looking at maps.
Accidents may still happen!
When an accident does occur, seeking medical assistance in a community away from home is usually necessary. For serious injuries, it is always necessary to call 911 or the local emergency number, and you will be transported to the nearest emergency facility. In less serious circumstances, always call your insurance assistance company for help. For example, Medipac Assistance has registered nurses who manage all calls and have the expertise to assess the appropriate site for your required care. In many cases, you will be directed to a local hospital or physician's office. Medipac has a large network of medical providers throughout much of the U.S. and parts of Mexico and staff are able to direct you to receive the necessary emergency medical attention. When extensive surgical or medical care is required following stabilization of your injuries, assistance companies will often arrange appropriate transport back to a hospital near your home for ongoing care.

Fire safety
When it comes to fire, adults over the age of 65 are at the greatest risk. This increases with age and deterioration in our senses of sight, sound and smell. Here is some advice regarding protecting you or your loved ones from fire:
  • Be sure that you have adequate smoke alarms on all levels of your dwelling.
  • Use the test button regularly on each detector, to be certain that it works.
  • Change your batteries once yearly (e.g. on your birthday, New Year's, etc.).
  • Keep any smokers outside when smoking.
  • Check for dangerous wiring or excessive electrical cords.
  • Be observant of any carelessness by others, especially when cooking (e.g. burning food, leaving elements on).
  • Have at least one full fire extinguisher available, usually in the kitchen.
  • Be certain that you have a planned exit strategy whether at home or away.
In summary, each of us is aware of our particular health status and the measures which we must take to help avoid illness or complications. Watching our weight, maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol level, keeping physically active, taking our medication and avoiding excessive sun exposure are just a few of the common objectives. Accidents are also a common and mostly preventable outcome among seniors. Be sure that you are observant and take the necessary precautions to enjoy a safe vacation, as well as a healthy one.