Air bags for older people

The older you get the more likely you are to fall – for a variety of reasons including sudden drops in blood pressure, impaired proprioception, slow reflexes, muscular weakness. Falls are what many older people fear most, particularly if there is also osteoporosis. First come broken wrists and then, as your reflexes get slower and you are on the ground before you can get your hand out to break your fall, broken hips.

In their homes, many older people who fall find that they can’t get up (when was the last time you saw a 90 year old raise themself from a lying position on the ground?) Even if you aren’t badly hurt, long hours lying on the floor waiting to be found can lead to hypothermia, dehydration and pressure ulcers where the boney parts – the skull, seat bones, shoulder blades – are in contact with the floor. Afterwards, the fear of another fall is often debilitating, particularly in the knowledge that your independence, privacy and dignity are on the line.

I used to be involved in a project to produce health information on falls. As well as the common-sense stuff about lighting the stairs and taping down any rugs, we were given other strange bits of advice to pass on to people who were anticipating a fall, like “Keep a blanket and hot drink in a flask in a low cupboard”. Imagine spending your morning creeping round refreshing your flask of tea for the day. Are you supposed to put a flask and blanket in each room? Or maybe just stay in the room with the flask and blanket. What a life.

Technology is promising. You can have sensors (intelligent, trainable ones) in your home which, via a central hub, can communicate to a trusted somebody with a smart key to your house (which only becomes usable in the event of something worrying happening) that you are in but you haven’t used the toilet or kettle for hours, or that your fridge door hasn’t been opened all day, or that your hob is on. But it won’t actually prevent a fall.

Given all that, I think this air-bag suit intended for older adults may not be as ridiculous or degrading as it looks. Let each decide.

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