Emergency worker's solution to senior falls: Headlights on walkers

Monday, March 24, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Forget driving in the dark -- sometimes it's dangerous just walking in the dark.

As the population ages, medical teams are responding to more calls from people who have fallen in the night. Many are from older adults who toppled over their walkers while reaching for a light switch on the way to the kitchen or bathroom.

Ron Olshwanger, director of the Creve Coeur Fire Protection District, knew there had to be something he could do.

"It just kind of hit me: Why don't the walkers have headlights?"

So Olshwanger did his research. He interviewed about 130 people who use walkers. He would stop them at restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies to ask for their opinions.

"I had a uniform on so I didn't scare them, and I told them what I was doing," he said. "The majority of them looked at their daughter or whoever was with them and said, 'Why didn't somebody think of this before?"'

Each year more than one-third of adults 65 and older suffer a fall, often with serious injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Creve Coeur fire department gets about 50 calls a month from people who need help getting up.

Olshwanger asked his colleagues at the fire district to help him shop for headlights online. They tried out several versions, settling on a headlight designed for bicycle handlebars.

Olshwanger contacted the manufacturer in New York. Then he installed the light on a walker that he keeps in his car, always ready for a demonstration.

The residents of Rosewood Care Center in Creve Coeur gave the walker high marks when Olshwanger took it by recently for a test drive.

Pauline Hooten, 87, spent nearly three months in the hospital earlier this year after she fell and hit her head. Now she keeps a flashlight under her pillow for those late-night errands. She thinks the headlight is a better idea, "especially in the night when you wake up. You're probably not thinking as clearly as you should."

Ilse Jordan, 95, gave a practical review of the high-beamed walker.

"For a household, it would help if you have batteries in reserve," she said. "I have the same thing with my radio. If I have no batteries then I have no music."

The light's battery should last at least two years, Olshwanger assured the group.

A manager at Medical West supply company in Clayton was impressed with Olshwanger's idea when the fire director brought in the walker.

Sometimes the best ideas don't come from manufacturers, but from those who know people with mobility problems, said Guy Walton, who plans an initial order of six headlights.

The lights will sell for $34, and Medical West can install them on existing or new walkers.

Olshwanger emphasizes that he and the fire department won't make any profit off the headlights. His inspiration is his mother, Bernice Bormaster, who died five years ago. After breaking her hip, she called her son three times in the middle of the night for help getting back to bed.

"It's a perfect example of what can happen. A lot of these people, their minds are fine, their bodies are just a little weak." Olshwanger said. "These people want to live a normal life, and I think this will help."

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