Which Demographic is Most Prone to House Fire Fatalities? The Elderly

In a tragic accident last week, two elderly people were found dead in a Smyrna home in the early morning hours after neighbors reported dark smoke and flames coming from a window of their home. James Clacker, 88, and Maureen Aiken, 90, both perished in the fire, which had completely engulfed the house by the time fire crews arrived.

The sad fact is that elderly people are the highest risk group when it comes to dying in house fires, accounting for over 25% of all house fire fatalities. People 65 years of age and older are the fastest growing age group in the country, predicted to make up 21% of the population by 2050, and as more Baby Boomers age, they enter a category that puts them at risk for death from fire (not to mention other household accidents.) They are 2.5 times more likely to die or become injured in a house fire.

The elderly are more prone to fire related fatalities for several reasons. For one, they are more likely to misuse electronic appliances such as electric blankets and portable heaters. Second, they appear to be more prone to household accidents involving fire, including cooking fires and electrical fires or smoking related fires.

Further, the several characteristics common to the elderly contribute to the risk of fire fatalities. (Though it should be noted that there are plenty of spry and active elderly folks out there!) We’ve all at least read about the side effects associated with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and those can include forgetfulness and lack of care for safety. It just takes an Alzheimer’s patient or dementia-sufferer forgetting to turn off the stove or iron one time to result in a terrible tragedy. Even if an elderly person is healthy, he or she may have slower reaction times than younger counterparts. Medications or infirmities such as the need to use canes, walkers or wheelchairs may contribute to a slow reaction time.

Fire alarms are recommended for all households, of course, but another sad fact is that many elderly people are in dire economic straits, with 10% of our nation’s elderly currently living in poverty. This may lead them to use candles, space heaters, the oven or other dangerous methods to heat the home or provide lights. Also, as people age, their senses start to deteriorate, starting with the sense of smell. Combine that with the fact that many elderly people live alone and are financially strapped, and there’s a recipe for a fire disaster.

Impaired health, unsafe habits, and living alone all combine to make fire danger an ever present reality for the elderly in the United States. Stay tuned to the MLN Law blog tomorrow for more on the fire risks unique to the elderly and how you can help yourself, your parents, or your grandparents avoid fire risk.