Home Alone – I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!
By Steve Weinstein
From the moment an elderly woman moaned, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” a TV ad for LifeCall TV became an immediate pop-culture catch phrase. As campy as it was, the ad dramatized a very real and growing epidemic.
Each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control, the leading cause of injury in adults older than 64 is falling. It’s no surprise that, with one in three seniors being the victim of an injury from a fall every year, it has become the primary fear of seniors living alone.
Having collected my first Social Security check, I might have entered the ranks of “senior citizen,” but I certainly don’t consider myself ready for the glue factory. Every time I’ve fallen, I’ve suffered nothing more than broken skin and a bruised ego.
The one thing that truly does terrify me, however, is slipping down my stairs, landing on the stone floor below and becoming completely incapacitated. My worst nightmare would be someone finding me lying in a pool of blood, with my dogs, maddened by starvation, gnawing on my desiccated corpse.
If that ever happens, I would have only myself to blame. When I gut-renovated my duplex apartment, I covered the stairs on the nearly vertical captain’s staircase in very beautiful but also very slick tile. Resurfacing the First Floor in the hardest stone available from Home Depot didn’t exactly provide the softest of landings.
Nor does it help when I come across yet-another gruesome news story like the ones about two unfortunate women in 2010, both long dead in their homes before they were discovered. The mailbox of, Jane Wild, 78, was stuffed to overflowing and the utilities turned off before the police arrived. And it took weeks before the landlord finally noticed that the lights in the apartment of one of his tenants, Juanita Goggins, 75, had been left on.
LifeCall itself tacitly admitted that wearing an emergency medical response device wouldn’t be much help after a really bad tumble down a staircase. In an another ad predating the now infamous “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” a woman rolls down a flight of stairs that dwarf the ones that cause Scarlett O’Hara’s miscarriage in Gone With the Wind.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite the fear of falling, I like living alone. So do a lot of other people.
A European research firm has estimated that worldwide, the number of people living alone rose 80 percent from 1996 to 2011. One-quarter of U.S. households consist of only one single person; one-third of those are elderly. Adults living alone make up nearly half of all households in Manhattan and Washington. In Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Minneapolis, they’re 40 percent of the total. And in Stockholm, over 50 percent of households are singlets.
For all of recorded history up to the recent past, the situation was far different. Older single relatives were expected to be taken by their families. Parents knew they could count on their adult children, but an out-of-the-way room spinster could always be found for a spinster or childless aunt — even if she got the short end of the drumstick at dinner. An outdated phrase, “the old maid’s glass,” meant the dregs at the bottom of a bottle of wine.
In his book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, sociologist Eric Klinenberg discovered that the biggest factor is that, far from a mark of poverty or living in squalor, single-adult households indicates privilege, not poverty. Nor are the mature adults who live by themselves isolated and friendless. Another sociologist, at Cornell University, analyzed data from the U.S. Census and found that single seniors not only had as many friends as their partnered peers; they were more likely to socialize outside the home, fact confirmed in hundreds of interviews done by Klinenberg.
Even so, a study has reported that over 20 percent of seniors living alone don’t have anyone to turn to for help — this, despite the revolution in communications that has enabled people to stay connected to the world while remaining at home. The Internet, smartphones and social media, instant messaging all have might have made it much easier to stay in touch, but, Klinenberg warns, there’s the danger of wanting to tune out the din and disconnecting.
One solution is owning a pet. Aside from making great companions, dogs ensure that their owners get out of the house. Study after study has shown that dog owners get more exercise. Other studies have shown that all pet owners tend to live longer and more socially integrated lives.
In my more rational moments, I realize that my most morbid fantasy of ending up as dog food is probably just that, a fantasy. Even if they didn’t have the wherewithal to dial 911, as did a dog in Zanesville, Ohio, earlier this year, my dogs’ constant barking would certainly prompt the neighbors to check up on me.
In the meantime, I’ll keep walking very, very carefully down those stairs. Just in case. #homealone