Tip to Avoid Falls When Traveling

Bathrooms can be slippery when wet
Bathrooms can be slippery when wet
Bathrooms: Slippery when wet

Experts offer advice on how travelers over-50 can avoid falls when traveling.

It happened in a split second. One of my very fit girlfriends (who shall remain unnamed) was vacationing at a luxury resort in the southwest (which shall remain unnamed) and had a vacation experience she won’t soon forget.

After a not-too-shabby spa day, which included an outdoor workout session, yoga class and massage treatments, she got back to her guest room to shower in anticipation of dressing up for a farm-to-table dinner to be enjoyed on-site at the restaurant that evening.

As she was reaching for a bath towel on a warming rack several feet away from the shower, her wet foot suddenly slid on the slick tile floor propelling her across the room. Before she knew it, she was writhing in pain. Buck naked, she was able to finally hoist herself up using her left hand for leverage.

She managed to put on the terry bathrobe on the hook on the bathroom door before calling the resort receptionist for help. In the emergency room of the local hospital later that evening, she was diagnosed with a broken right wrist. As a result, she had to cut short her vacation and return home the next day with her arm in a splint.

Accidents wait to happen at home and away

Of course, accidents can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone and the results can be painful, even deadly. Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen recently died suddenly after a fall at his home.

The odds of falls tend to increase as we age, especially if an individual’s sense of balance is compromised by illness, disability, taking certain medications, and/or alcohol use. Risk increases exponentially after the age of 65. It is estimated that 2.4 million Americans over the age of 65 wind up in emergency rooms after falls, accounting for one ER visit every 13 seconds for people in this age group.

But environmental factors can also make travelers prone to falls. Travelers are vulnerable when they are navigating new environments (whether they are guestrooms, restaurants or cobblestone streets) that may be poorly lit, have uneven flooring or other risk factors that increase the chance of falls when traveling.

Rainy day on a street in Bologna, Italy
Rainy day on a cobblestone street in Bologna, Italy
Another perilous cobblestone street in Lisbon, Portugal
Another perilous cobblestone street in Lisbon, Portugal – especially in heels

They may be struggling with suitcases or carrying bags or packages that throw off their balance. It’s common for travelers to be fatigued and distracted by all the stimulation around them. And anyone over the age of 50 knows that you don’t recover as quickly from a slip or tumble as you did when you were a kid.

Alistair Chapman, MD, is a board-certified general and critical care surgeon specializing in acute care surgery.

Laura Maclam, RN has more than 20 years experience caring for trauma patients and worked full-time as a paramedic for 15 years.

They both work with Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

MoreTimeToTravel recently asked these two experts for advice on how to minimize the risk of falls when traveling—for travelers over the age of 50:

What are some of the factors that make people more prone to falls when traveling?

When we travel we tend to drink less water. Dehydration can increase our risk of falling. Traveling in an unfamiliar area or during times of low light, such as daybreak or evening, also can reduce visibility and lead to a fall. In addition, fatigue and being busy can lead you to rush and reduce the amount of attention you pay to your surroundings. All of these factors increase the risk of falling while traveling.

When traveling, are the places people are likely to fall or the types of injuries they receive any different from those that occur at home?

You can sustain the same types of injuries from a fall at home or when traveling. There may be a slightly increased risk of falling in a hotel or sleeping area when traveling or when trying to move around at night in an unfamiliar area.

What special hazards do bathrooms pose? Can travelers make any easy modifications to prevent falls in hotels/resorts/etc.?

Slippery surfaces such as glossy tile or polished stone can be hazardous and increase the potential for a slip or fall. Travelers might want to look for a room with grab bars in the bathroom and a walk-in shower, which will decrease the risk of falling. Also, in handicap-accessible rooms, the doorways tend to be wider to accommodate wheelchairs and the rooms may have enhanced lighting.

When arriving at your hotel, look closely for loose or broken tile and request a bath slip mat if the shower does not have one. Also, bring along a nightlight so you can avoid moving around an unfamiliar place in the dark.

What steps can people in midlife take to prevent falls before they travel?

Travel is exciting, but can also be stressful. Plan to get plenty of rest and initiate a regular exercise plan prior to the trip to help build stamina and decrease the risk for fatigue when traveling. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water during your trip. It’s also a good idea to speak with your doctor prior to your trip and ask about any health concerns.

How important is footwear? Do you have any advice on selecting shoes for a cruise, hikes or walking tours?

Pack comfortable shoes with non-skid soles. Avoid wearing flip flops, high heels or open-backed shoes. It is important to wear shoes you have worn before and that are comfortable. New shoes can lead to blisters and painful feet. If you think you might need additional support or stability, pack a cane or walker.

What should someone do if they fall when they are away from home?

If you fall while you are away, do not hesitate to be evaluated by a medical professional. It is helpful to medical staff if you are prepared with your medical history, so bring along a list of all medications, including over-the-counter medications, and the dosages and times you take them. Report any drug allergies. Also compile a list of your physicians. Share the list with a trusted friend or family member at home and e-mail it to yourself so you can access it while traveling.

Photo credit: Pixabay
Photo credit: Pixabay

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  1. Great topic, Irene!

    I slipped and fell on a slippery curb when it was raining at Disney World at night several years ago. The side of my body I fell on was badly bruised but fortunately nothing broke. Then when I worked on a college campus I slipped on black ice between buildings and would have fell hard, but miraculously a petite little student caught me from behind! I was wearing sensible shoes (Lands End All Weather Mocs, which have been my go-to winter shoes for years) but it didn’t help with black ice. I go out of my way to be careful of falling, not so much because of age but “The bigger you are, the harder you fall.” I always hold on to railings going up or down stairs when there is rain or snow.

    I started using an unattractive bath mat in the shower a few years ago ($2.99 at Wal-Mart) as I had a few scary slips due to bath products. Now when I travel, I’ll put a towel in the shower to use as a bath mat and it works well.

  2. Excellent tips here, and good reminders not to rush too much when getting out of the shower, etc., or when crossing icy parking lots.

  3. Excellent reminders, Irene. (I’ve noticed the older I get even changing my routine activities can cause aches and pains that take much longer to subside than they did 10 years ago!)

  4. All good tips, and I especially like the advice about packing a nightlight. The last trip I took we were traveling from hotel to hotel, with each new room unfamiliar and pitch-black at night. It would have helped so much to have a small nightlight in both the bedroom and the bathroom in all those hotels. I guess you could use your cellphone as a flashlight, but oftentimes your devices are somewhere across the room charging up. I’m going to pick up two nightlights at the drugstore next time I’m there!

  5. This is good advice for travelers of any age. I always make sure I have my phone or a small flashlight in my pocket at night. So many unexpected things can pop up underfoot — loose paving stones, unexpected curbs and steps, tree roots — even the proverbial banana peel.

  6. Barbara R is right on with the flashlight advice. You never know when you might be out at night in a place where the lighting is bad. Another tip I learned from hiking: always be looking down to spot impediments. When you want to look at the scenery, stop so your feet are secure on the ground. Before you step forward, make sure your back foot is in place.

  7. I could almost feel your friend’s pain when she fell. I would have been petrified to be found buck naked by the paramedics. Oh well, she was fortunate. As we age, we’re not as “spry” as we used to be. When making my bed up with fresh sheets a few years ago, I tripped and fell hard, hurting my shoulder. Recovery certainly wasn’t as fast as when I was younger. Great post!

  8. Hi Irene. My husband had a bad fall earlier this year when we were travelling. It made me realize just how easily these things happen, and how unexpected they will be. Your tips are great for all of us to keep in mind.

  9. I started out my career as a pharmacist in a nursing home and saw first-hand evidence of what can happen from a fall. Broken hips especially can be the beginning of a long, downward spiral. I had a couple of nasty falls when we were traveling in Mexico a few years ago – fortunately only massive, unsightly bruises but good reminders that I need to slow down and pay attention. And now that we’re living in a country with many picturesque cobblestone roads (loved your photo of the Lisbon road) it’s even more important to watch where I’m going! 🙂

  10. Perhaps 10 years ago, I was traveling in China with my family. Our hotel was on a wide street that was being redone, so it had no pavement and no lights, except from the buildings along it. One big part of the street, though, was a construction site with no lights at all. We were walking home from dinner along what was going to be the bike path. I was stepping carefully because it hadn’t been fully evened out yet. Then all of a sudden I stepped and nothing was there! A manhole had been left open. I fell in with one leg down to my thigh, while the other leg clunked down next to the hole on my knee. I had a huge scrape down one leg and a big, black bruise and scrape on the other knee. When I got inside (limping and dripping blood down my leg), I also saw that a big round dark bruise had appeared on the inside of my thigh. The hotel personnel were incredibly unmoved, refusing to even go find ice for me. Fortunately, I hadn’t broken anything, and we were able to continue our trip, but I hate to think what might have happened if I’d been older, frailer, or just less lucky! In any case, I’d also advise packing a supply of bandages and sterile wipes and such for such eventualities.

    1. What a nightmare, Rachel! When I fell on a cobblestone street in Italy, waiters ran into the street with ice and cloth napkins to help. After the “first aid,” I did have to search for large knee bandages. Now I always carry them with me.

  11. Great article – I slipped years ago and cracked a rib. Oh my goodness, the pain. Can’t cough. pull your luggage, lift anything and it even hurts to go to the bathroom. One slip and you can have a serious fall. It takes a split second.

  12. Terrific reminder to slow down and make adjustments as we all get a bit older. It amazes me how fast things can go wrong. We had a friend who also fell in a hotel bathroom and ended up with severe injuries. She actually asked for a bath safety matt and was too impatient to wait or call down again. Great tip to just use a towel in a pinch!

  13. I don’t have good balance anymore at 68 so I make sure I hold on to something or someone stable most of the time and especially when I am going up or down the stairs.

  14. Great advice, take it from me, falling when you’re traveling is very stressful. I have fallen twice in Chiang Mail. The first time a motorcycle forced me off the road. If it hadn’t been for my sunglasses, I would have lost my eye. Instead, I had a huge gash in my head, which resulted in 26 stitches at the local hospital. Thankfully, Thailand has excellent health care. The second time I was wearing flip flops (no more!), and the sidewalk was uneven and down I went. Certainly not as bad as the first fall but not nice. I no longer wear flip flops when I am out and about, and make sure that the shoes I wear are sturdy. I’d rather look like Grandma Moses upright than sprawled on the ground.Falling also plays havoc with yourself confidence.

  15. How interesting that something as simple as a glass of water can make a difference! After slipping on stairs and breaking a wrist (quite a problem for a pianist!!) nearly a couple of decades ago I’ve made a point of holding on to the rail as I navigate stairs, and being careful and mindful when walking, whether in familiar or unfamiliar places. No one wants to lose hours or days, especially when visiting some wonderful place in the world!

  16. Great advice, we’ve both sprained an ankle while travelling, one on the cobblestone in Amsterdam and one in a hole a chicken dug on a property on Maui. It definitely puts a damper on things.

  17. Excellent post. I’m also a CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) and am constantly surprised by hotels who put “form” before “function” — especially when it’s possible to have both.

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