Falls are a huge concern for seniors, their caregivers and senior living professionals. Chris Williams is one such professional as a certified personal trainer who has been working with seniors in their assisted living communities and homes for over 17 years in Naples, Florida. During his work, Williams has noticed a direct link between increased balance and a reduced incidence of falls with his older clients.
Learn more about Williams’ work and how assisted living communities are preventing falls in seniors today.
10 Assisted Living Designs to Prevent Falls in Seniors
Williams, who founded Emeritus Health, created Balance University to reduce the risk of senior falls. The free 10-week exercise program focuses on improving balance in seniors who don’t have access to a personal trainer or physical therapist. “Balance is the foundation of all movement and there are four pillars of exercises that are needed to improve balance,” he says. “Leg and core strength, postural exercises, improving flexibility and balance exercises.”
While poor balance can lead to a devastating fall, the physical risk isn’t the only concern. “According to the CDC, an estimated one in four older adults fall each year, resulting in broken/fractured bones, head injuries and even fatalities,” says Bryan Adams, Chief Commercial Officer at GreatCall, which develops connected health technology for active aging.
“For older adults, falls can be costly and painful – the average cost of a fall-related hospitalization and rehabilitation is $35,000,” Adams says. “However, older adults and their families don’t often consider what can be the most devastating cost of falls – the psychological and emotional after-effects.”
Both Adams and Williams work alongside assisted living communities to help reduce the risk of falls, but today’s communities are doing much more. Whether it’s a newly built community or a remodel of an existing community, fall prevention features are being built-in to virtually every aspect of the building.
Here are a few of the ways that assisted living communities are reducing falls and keeping residents safe:
1. Balance training and fitness centers.
Many assisted living communities are designed with comprehensive fitness and rehab centers. These communities will bring in balance experts like Williams, who help residents focus on exercise, flexibility and strength to improve overall health and reduce the risk of a fall. “I know that many assisted living communities offer balance classes to their residents and I have seen quite a few, newly built facilities with fitness centers that are staffed by certified personal trainers,” he says. “This is great to see! Strength training and group fitness classes are a great way to improve balance, flexibility, osteoporosis and positively impact the cardiovascular system.”
Williams recommends that during a tour, families ask about a community’s balance program and inquire about the certification of the instructors and personal trainers.
2. Colors and materials.
As we age, our eyesight can no longer distinguish between very similar colors. We also may have trouble picking out subtle shapes and shadows. For example, if an assisted living designer places magazine stands on the floor that are a similar color to the wall, residents might have trouble spotting the stand and knock into it, potentially causing falls.
All objects on the ground, including furniture, should be in contrasting colors so that they are clearly visible. That’s why glass furniture is usually avoided — because seniors may not be able to see it.
3. Fall prevention technology.
Most assisted living communities use built-in and mobile technology like mobile personal emergency response systems, also known as PERs. “By partnering with PERs providers, [communities] are able to offer wearables and mobile medical alert devices to all residents,” Adams says.
Assisted living communities that use PERs are better able to reduce the likelihood of a fall and respond quickly and effectively should a fall take place. When you tour an assisted living community, be sure to ask about how they are using technology to reduce the risk of falls.
Designers may use several different flooring types throughout the community. Kitchens and medical rooms need hardwood flooring or smooth tile so they can be cleaned properly. However, for comfort, residents often prefer soft carpets in bedrooms and gathering spots. “Designs are now incorporating thoughtful changes to the bathroom, such as using smaller tiles for more traction and placing grab bars where they’re most needed to curb the chances of falls in the shower,” Adams says.
There are sound reasons for using different types of flooring in different areas of a community, which is why zero entries are so important. Ensuring a smooth transition between each flooring type is important, but so is keeping that flooring in near-perfect condition, to reduce falls and helps keep seniors safe.
5. Gentle ramps and railings.
It’s important that all residents can access all the areas of their home, by themselves. That’s why communities today are built in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires that ramps be no steeper than 4.8 degrees.
All stairways and ramps in assisted living communities should have railings on both the left and the right and very wide staircases should have railings in the center. It seems like such a simple detail, but well-positioned railings really improve the flow of traffic throughout a building.
While caregivers and residents will want their assisted living community to be energy-efficient, it is a huge tripping hazard for residents to be walking in dimly-lit areas.
Luckily, there are many design solutions for this challenge. Smart technologies allow lights to be turned on and off with a voice command. Pull cords for lights and strategically placed light switches at the entryway of rooms and next to beds are another solution.
7. Stair treads.
In addition to health and technology programs, the way an assisted living community is designed and built can prevent falls amongst residents. While most new assisted living communities have elevators, many seniors prefer to use the stairs to remain active. Plus, in the event of an emergency scenario or power outage, everyone will have to use the stairs.
Therefore, architects design wide staircases with sturdy banisters and non-slip flooring. Well-designed communities will also keep stairwells free of decorative features which may pose a tripping hazard.
8. Storage space.
Most residents will downsize significantly before they move into an assisted living community, but designers should still offer ample storage space. “The basics of eliminating clutter and trip hazards, adding storage in rooms, incorporating non-skid surfaces and increasing lighting is a given,” Adams points out.
The goal of storage is to offer functionality and safety. Residents need a place to keep all their belongings, otherwise, decorative objects, magazines and stacks of clothing can clutter up a room and increase the risk of a fall. Architectural designs should include ample closet space as well as shelving so seniors can stay organized and have a place for all their belongings.
9. Walk-in baths.
Seniors are very likely to fall in bathrooms because water makes everything more slippery. Therefore, assisted living community designers need to provide non-slip surfaces and supportive railings at every opportunity.
Bathrooms meant for public use will also be used by seniors and must have the necessary safety features. Further, even though staff may help seniors into the bath, it’s safer for everyone if all showers and bathtubs are walk-in and are simple for seniors to step into.
10. Zero entries.
Typical entryways might have rough transitions from carpeting, door frames, or other floorings, which makes it harder for residents to enter the building or room, especially by themselves. To solve this dilemma, assisted living communities are designed with zero entries, which are doorways that have a level transition. These entryways are smooth to roll a walker or wheelchair over. Having only zero entries makes buildings more accessible.
As a caregiver, you should assess whether your parent or senior loved one’s assisted living community has been built with these features, but it’s also important to consider the fall prevention programs and technologies that are offered in combination with the above-mentioned design considerations.
As you walk through assisted living communities, always consider how the design choices and programming might help your loved one avoid falls, and if you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask! There are many more design choices that can help prevent senior falls today.
Which assisted living designs have you come across in your assisted living search? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.