If you’ve ever visited a loved one at an assisted living or nursing home, you’ve probably heard the persistent beep of a fall alarm going off. No matter how often you hear it, the sound is jarring, loud and shrill. But now there’s a movement afoot in nursing homes across the country to make it go away.
Rest assured, the idea of phasing out these fall prevention alarms isn’t just to get rid of the irritating noise they make. It’s because they don’t really seem to be keeping residents any safer. Fall mats placed alongside the bed are on their way out as well.
The mats and alarms both gained popularity in the 1990s, in place of the more restrictive personal restraints that had been used in the industry to keep residents from falling. Other strategies included chair alarms that generally clip to the chair and the resident’s clothing, and sound when the person tries to get up. Bed alarms are pressure-sensitive, beeping their warning when a resident falls out of bed or tries to get up on their own. The mats, of course, are there to provide a softer landing in case of a fall. But all of these safety devices may be on the wane.
Oakwood Village Prairie Ridge in Madison, Wisconsin, was one of the first long term care communities to embrace the change earlier this summer. "We're putting alarms on residents so we can forget about them," said Jenna Heim, director of nursing at the facility, speaking of past policies. Her words may sound a bit harsh, but the reality is that the use of alarms often takes the place of personal interaction between residents and staff. Heim explains that without the devices, staff will spend more time with residents to ensure their safety. Nursing homes are busy places and such automatic devices meant employees could leave residents alone, knowing they’d be alerted in the event of a fall.
And make no mistake, the risk of falling is a big deal among seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost one-third of adults over 65 falls each year. And one out of every five seniors that does fall experiences injuries ranging from a broken hip to a head injury. Even worse, the CDC reports that annually as many as 1,800 seniors in nursing homes will die due to fall-related injuries.
So what caused the reversal on alarms? Basically,the industry discovered over the years the devices may do their job to alert staff after a fall has taken place, but actually do very little to prevent them from happening.
In fact, the startling beep, beep, beep of an alarm sounding, can actually cause a resident to fall — especially one who’s already confused, frail or off-balance. And those mats? They may cushion the fall of someone who rolls out of bed, but have you ever tried walking on the cushy, uneven surface? It’s truly an accident waiting to happen.