Beatrice Peterson, 97, knows what it means to fall. She has tumbled down stairs and once fell when she was trying to retrieve Christmas decorations.

How many times has it happened? “I’m not counting,” she said recently with a rueful laugh.

Peterson was one of 16 seniors who attended a recent training session on avoiding such hazards at Blaine Courts, an independent senior living community in Blaine. The participants, most older than 70, left their apartments to hear a free presentation linked to a national fire- and fall-prevention program called “Remembering When,” which was created by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Calls about seniors who have fallen are often handled by fire departments that respond to 911 calls. The NFPA offers the program free online and since 2007 has trained more than 600 people from around the country at its national meetings. Since 2008, teams from Minneapolis, Eagan, Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View, Duluth and Cloquet have been trained at NFPA conferences.

The Blaine program was taught by Becky Booker of the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department and Brian McDonald, one of the owners of Synergy Home Care. They were trained as a team by the NFPA and ran a Jeopardy-like quiz show that had seniors talking about safety at home even as they had some laughs.

Dealing with beloved but dangerous throw rugs, information on grab bars that can be deployed all over the house and strategies on how to react to alarms in apartment buildings were among the covered topics.

“Prevention comes first in our fire department,” Booker said after the presentation. “The challenge is to get into homes to prevent falls and talk about safety. … We visit every senior safety fair, the Red Hat [Society for older women] and senior independent living places and give them simple solutions. We want to get into their heads with this.”

McDonald got interested in the issue when his work in the medical tech field meshed with personal experience in helping with the care of a terminally ill relative. He donates his time for the presentations. Since he and Booker were trained by the NFPA 18 months ago, they’ve done 15 presentations to about 300 people, with more planned this spring.

Grim statistics

The meeting in Blaine began with some grim U.S. statistics. Every 29 minutes, someone dies from a fall. Every 15 seconds someone is admitted to the hospital because of a fall. And each year, one in three seniors will fall.

But that means two out of three didn’t fall, McDonald told the group. Staying active is the key, he said. And, Booker said, falls and getting hurt by fires are entirely preventable.

Among the tips the two gave on the two subjects:

• Heat can light anything within three feet on fire. Keep paper towels, calendars, bread bags and other combustibles away from stoves.

• If you must leave while cooking, turn stoves off. If you’re using an oven and must leave the kitchen, put a timer in your pocket to alert you when food is done. Falling asleep while something is cooking is a top cause of kitchen fires, Booker said. Never cook if you’re taking medication that makes you drowsy.

• A big cause of falls is rugs that don’t have a rubber backing and can slip or curl up on the floor. Heirloom or favorite throw rugs can be hung on a wall or displayed on the back of a chair, Booker said. If people insist on keeping throw rugs, they should be anchored to the floor with two-sided carpet tape. People who say it’s too expensive to replace throw rugs should compare it to the cost of a broken hip, she said.

• Grab bars are for more than the bathroom. So-called “compression bars” run from floor to ceiling and can support up to 300 pounds. McDonald suggested professionals or someone knowledgeable in home construction install them to make sure they don’t pierce the ceiling. Sold in durable medical equipment stores, they’re useful near recliners or sofas where someone needs help getting to their feet.

• If you must have candles in the house, use the battery-operated ones that look very much like the real thing.

At the end of the presentation, three seniors signed up for an inspection in which experts will walk through their apartments and point out dangers that should be fixed. Booker said she and McDonald have visited Blaine Courts twice before. When the two visit facilities for the first time, she said, about 90 percent of seniors usually ask for a walk-through of their home.

Dora Brockman, 79, was intrigued by the compression grab bars that can be located anywhere in a home. She also has past experience with a kitchen fire.

“I learned a lot from this,” she said.

So did Peterson. “I think I need to get rid of some of my rugs,” she said.


Mary Jane Smetanka is a Twin Cities freelance writer.