Older adults at increased risk of drowning in Victoria

You’re never too old to learn or refresh your water safety skills.

This was an important message of Water Safety Week 2019 and for good reason, with LSV research highlighting that older adults are at increased risk of drowning in Victoria.

LSV’s Drowning Report for 2018-19 found that overall last year there were 17 more deaths than the 10-year average, or a 29 per cent increase in the fatal drowning rate.

With 56 drowning deaths in 2018-19, Victoria recorded the highest number of drowning deaths in more than 20 years – and it was people aged 65 years and above who had the highest age-specific fatal drowning rate.

LSV Manager – Research, Rhiannon Birch, said one of the key takeaways of the report was that adults are at greater risk of drowning than commonly realised.

“Older adults are more likely to drown than children – last year we saw a 71 per cent increase in the drowning rate for those aged 65 years and over compared to the 10-year average, while adults 45-64 had the second highest drowning rate of all age groups. In particular, men in these age groups are at the highest risk drowning in Victoria” Ms Birch said.

“That is why the Play it Safe by the Water working group was behind a Victorian Government ‘Know your Limits’ campaign which ran over summer targeting men aged over 45 years, highlighting the statistics and that the person they should be looking out for around water is themselves.”

“Water safety is important at all stages of life and getting tailored messages across to the most at-risk populations is a key focus for drowning prevention,” Ms Birch said.

“We want people of all ages, genders, backgrounds and life stages to be aware of their abilities and to take the time to check the conditions and prepare before entering the water.”

The research had shown that older adults are a particularly vulnerable group without necessarily knowing it, Ms Birch said.

“In part, this is because where and how people use water is always changing, and the water safety messages they need also changes, especially over a life span,” she said.

“For example, when people become new parents, they need to know how to keep their children safe around water, and this may not be something that they have needed to be aware of before.

“Similarly as people get older, their physical abilities change and they may not be able to rely on the skills they had years earlier. They might overestimate their competencies around water based on their previous experiences rather than their current abilities and this can be where things like unintentional entry into the water can have tragic consequences.

“Certain medications may also impact a person’s ability, balance, perception and reaction time in the water – and this may not be something that they have thought of before. In a similar way, alcohol significantly affects judgement and coordination and is known to increase the likelihood of drowning.”

Across all age groups, the 2018-19 Victorian Drowning Report found unintentional water entry, including slips, trips, falls and attempting a rescue, accounted for 46 per cent (26) of fatal drowning incidents last year – a figure double that of the past decade’s average.

Other LSV research shows unintentional entry is the most common factor contributing to drowning incidents in older adults, and so educating people about the risk of falls into water and preventative actions was important.While the warmer months are still some time away, Ms Birch urged older adults to keep up their fitness and swimming abilities while taking additional precautions over winter.

“Swimming and activities in cold water can lead to breathing difficulties, hypothermia and drowning, while sudden falls into cold water can be fatal.

“To stay safe, always check the weather or conditions before you venture out, know your limits, wear a lifejacket when boating or rock fishing, avoid alcohol and go with a friend.

“If going rock fishing, check the conditions and check the Bureau of Meteorology website before going out and postpone your trip if the forecast is bad.

“Once there, take time to observe the conditions before heading down onto the rocks, wear light safety clothing and cleated shoes and carry safety gear including ropes, buckets and a mobile phone and/or EPIRB.”

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