How to stop Helen falling? It’ll take a village

Helen is a relatively fit blonde. Her sprightly manner, sparkly eyes and quick mind belie her 80+ years, and some arthritis. She’s considerate, attentive and has buckets of opinions, and though a life-long New Yorker, not a bit brash. Unfortunately last week she slipped, fell and broke her hip outside her apartment, and is now starting a lengthy and expensive hospital stay and the prospect of reduced mobility. This post is about why that simple, all-too-common occurrence is both so common, and so tragic, and some thoughts about what we could do about it. 

I met Helen at a Lower East social club for seniors, where Helen is a bingo star, and a (relative) tech wizard. She’s an enthusiastic convert to Apple Mac computers, and loves technology. Sharp as a whip, she’s very interested in innovation, and I’d invited her to join us at the most recent Aging2.0 | New York event. On the morning of that event, perhaps with her mind pre-occupied by the excitement that was to come (yes, our events are really that good), she stooped to pick up the newspaper that the delivery guy had carelessly dropped in several parts outside the door. She went one way, and her walker went the other. She fell, landed on her hip, and her life changed. Happily for her, her ride was picking her up for an appointment shortly, so she only had to lie around in pain on the floor for 15mins.

At one level of course you can’t ever really cut out the falls risk without wrapping people up in cotton wool. However, chatting with her today in her hospital room, it occurred to me that are a number of innovation opportunities here:

  • Age-inclusive building design. Sounds like it wouldn’t be hard to have a place to put newspapers, mail and deliveries that keeps them all manageable. Do we have to rediscover the post box?
  • Smart flooring. Flooring that gives when you fall, such as that by Sorbashock, or smartcarpets that can figure out if someone’s fallen. Obviously expensive for a building to install, but why wouldn’t someone who’s picking up the tab for the costs be interested in supporting it?
  • Fall prevention technology. There are various tools, gadgets and alogorithms emerging that passively look for patterns, for example in gait, and can predict if the wearer is getting more unstable on their feet. Boston-based seems well ahead of the competition in putting the smartphone as sensor to use. This wouldn’t necessarily have helped with Helen, since she wasn’t getting weaker, just had a one-off fall. 
  • Fall alerts. Not much good for prevention, but a lot of sense in speeding the support if you fall. Aging2.0 regular (and recent presenter at A2 | Boston), QMedic offer a solution promising much longer battery life and more intelligence than competing systems. However, Helen’s a stylish gal, so to get her to use it (as I told them when they pitched at the New Orleans AARP competition) they need to bling it up. Perhaps by partnering with some of the sassy design-focused folks in the space such as Liz&Ett (disclosure: we’ve already got her helping us out) or one of the great design schools, such as Parsons.
  • Prevention is cheaper and better than rehab. While Helen is hanging out at a high-end rehab institute for several thousand dollars a day, wouldn’t the one picking up the tab (i.e. you, me and Medicaid) be better of with a more active education and fall-prevention program. Getting people to move more, whether it’s Tai Chi, dancing, or our friends at FallStop MoveStrong, suddenly looks like a smart use of health care dollars.
  • Similarly, get the gadgets in their hands earlier. If Helen had had one of these funky ‘grabber’ devices easily accessible from her walker she wouldn’t have bothered trying to strain for it. What does it cost to make 10,000 of these things, a few bucks each? Why not give one to everybody who needs one, before they pick one up during rehab? 
  • While we’re at it, make those useful gadgets, such as the grabber, look cool, so that people aren’t embarrassed to have them around. Who wants hospital artifacts lying around their house? This gripe forms one of our main focus areas as Aging2.0 – “Lifestyle, not deathstyle” (working title).
  • Neighborhood watch – for seniors, not just villains. Someone lying outside on the floor for 15minutes and no-one is there to do anything about it? Good thing she had a ride coming. Sounds like we need to recalibrate neighborhood watch away from the big brother, towards old fashioned community support.
  • Rediscovering respect in society. Does the guy delivering the newspaper know that the person he’s delivering it to is 84? Would that make him or her more considerate before leaving the paper in a mess? What about basic manners? This sounds like a societal conversation.
  • Finally, perhaps Helen would be better off with an iPad rather than a newspaper? Actually, I think that’s one option, but a cop-out. Let’s not force people to change what they like to do just because we’re too lazy to think about the broader implications of how we design society.

So, a real shame that Helen fell doing something really trivial, but she’s in fine spirits and her innate positivity is undimmed. Like so much on the Aging2.0 ‘AGEnda’, to really make fundamental change, it’ll “take a village”, or in the modern day parlance, an ecosystem. We need a mindset shift towards products, services and infrastructure that are more sensitive to the needs of older adults, and help avoid the avoidable, not just cope with expensive after effects. People like Helen, and our society in general, will be happier, healthier and wealthier because of it.

Happy Halloween, and be safe out there.