Background: Health care providers and providers of emergency services are sometimes called to help with people who are found alone in their homes either helpless or dead. It is not known who is at risk for being found helpless or dead, what the mortality rates are among those found alive, or how frequently this situation occurs.
Methods: We conducted a population-based study of patients who were found in their homes either helpless or dead. Over 12 weeks, paramedics employed by the city of San Francisco identified 387 such events involving 367 persons. We obtained information on these patients from the emergency-medical-services department or the hospitals to which they were taken and determined their outcomes.
Results: The median age of the persons found helpless or dead was 73 years; 51 percent were women. The frequency of such incidents increased sharply with age, from a rate of 3 per 1000 per year among those 60 to 64 years of age to 27 per 1000 per year among those 85 years of age or older. The highest rate was among men 85 years and older who were living alone (123 per 1000 per year). In 23 percent of the cases, the person was found dead; an additional 5 percent died in the hospital. Thus, total mortality was 28 percent. Of the patients found alive, 62 percent were admitted to the hospital. The average hospital stay was eight days, and 52 percent of those admitted required intensive care. Of the survivors, 62 percent were unable to return to living independently. The total mortality was 67 percent for patients who were estimated to have been helpless for more than 72 hours, as compared with 12 percent for those who had been helpless for less than 1 hour.
Conclusions: For elderly people who live alone, becoming incapacitated and unable to get help is a common event, which usually marks the end of their ability to live independently.