‘I stopped breathing’: Water safety skills ‘vital’ for seniors

Water safety plea for seniors as summer drowning toll balloons


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Would you know what to do if you fell overboard? Seniors are being urged to learn water safety skills.

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AUTHORITIES are urging older people to learn vital swimming and water safety skills for themselves and their families.

The plea from the Royal Life Saving Society follows this summer’s tragic drowning toll – which has jumped by 50 per cent.

There have been 92 drowning deaths reported in Australia this summer, compared to 60 for the same period last year. About a third of those who drowned were aged 55 or over.

Royal Life Saving Society senior project officer Stacey Pidgeon urges seniors to be aware of their fitness and health limitations, and the effects of medication, when in and around the water.

“You can never be too old to learn new skills, including CPR and first aid skills,” she said. “With more grandparents looking after grandchildren it is vital to be able to identify hazards and know what to do in an emergency.”  

You can never be too old to learn new skills, including CPR and first aid skills. - Stacey Pidgeon, Royal Life Saving

Ms Pidgeon is the author of the 2013 report Drowning Deaths in Older People, a 10-year analysis of drowning in people aged 50 and over in Australia from 2002 to 2012.

It found in that time, 1072 people aged 50 and over drowned in our waterways. While the main cause of death was from watercraft (22 per cent), most drowning deaths in people aged 85 and over was due to falls. 

Figures from the latest Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report show one Australian aged 65 and over died every week from drowning in the 12 months to end of June 2018, with boating-related incidents still the leading cause in this age group.

Alcohol was known to be involved in just over a third (37 per cent) of drowning deaths and underlying medical conditions were present in just over two-thirds (68 per cent) of people aged 65 and over.

Connie takes the plunge

AS A young girl growing up in the sun-baked southern Italian region of Calabria, Connie Cardaciotto was never one to join her friends at the beach or in the local pool.

“I had no confidence, and I just panic even to see the water,” said Connie – now a 76-year-old grandmother of 13 – who emigrated to Australia in her 20s. 

TAKING THE PLUNGE: Connie Cardaciotto (far right, back row) at an adult water safety lesson in Altona, Victoria.

TAKING THE PLUNGE: Connie Cardaciotto (far right, back row) at an adult water safety lesson in Altona, Victoria.

Connie, from Altona in Melbourne, is one of several migrants who have participated in an adult water safety program at her local pool for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) residents.

“I never think about swimming, then one day at the local community centre where I learn English an opportunity came up and someone said would I like to take part.”

Despite being in her 70s, Connie decided to take the plunge along with her husband, Tony, 82. While she’s not now suddenly swimming laps of the pool, she feels more confident in the water. “If the water is not deep I can walk, and feel more confident now,” she said. “And I would do the program again.”

Life Saving Victoria’s Blair Morton was instrumental in setting up the pilot program. “Australians aged 55 and over make up a large proportion of the drowning statistics in Australia and as the population is ageing this continues to increase,” he said.

He said some may have swum a long time ago and lost the skill or confidence.  “Some may simply overestimate their ability. We know many drownings in older people occur when they didn’t intend to go in the water – from falling in, boating, being washed off rocks or driving through flood water.”

POOLING RESOURCES: New South Wales Royal Life Saving Society says education and swimming lessons are “crucial” to help reduce swimming pool deaths.

POOLING RESOURCES: New South Wales Royal Life Saving Society says education and swimming lessons are “crucial” to help reduce swimming pool deaths.

“Participants don’t necessarily learn to swim, but they are in the water. It’s about embedding water safety issues, such as prevention, basic CPR,” he said.

“We’re not saying people need to head to the beach and bodysurf, but they will have more confidence around water.”

Swimming lessons ‘crucial’​

Royal Life Saving Society NSW chief executive Michael Ilinsky said education and swimming lessons are “absolutely crucial” to help reduce overall fatalities in swimming pools.

He has welcomed a $95,000 investment by the NSW government to the organisation to help develop adult learn to swim classes and lifesaving courses across the state.

“We welcome the Government’s investment in this area to help prevent more drownings so people can enjoy their local swimming pool safely,” Mr Ilinsky said.

He said increasing education about the impacts of pre-existing conditions and prescribed medicines on swimmers is a vital part of minimising risk.

The program will support more than 300 public aquatic facilities across NSW, and will be rolled out over the coming months.

GOING OVERBOARD: Getting back onto a boat in soaking wet clothing can be much harder than expected.

GOING OVERBOARD: Getting back onto a boat in soaking wet clothing can be much harder than expected.

‘I stopped breathing’

And in Victoria, Maritime Safety Victoria (MSV) and Life Saving Victoria (LSV) are challenging boaters and paddlers to practise getting back on their boats and kayaks.

Victorian boater David Bellette, from Montrose, jumped into the water to help release a rope in the propeller of a yacht he was sailing on. 

Despite volunteering the 73 year old said the shock was not something he expected. 

"In summertime, we think of warm weather - but the water is still very cold,” he said.

“I stopped breathing. My ability to think clearly disappeared. I couldn’t coordinate my muscles, and it was the crew members who had to haul me back on board again.”

Maritime Safety Victoria director Rachel Gualano said clambering back onto a boat in soaking wet clothing could be much harder than people expected.

“Getting back on board involves a certain level of fitness and strength, especially when you are dealing with factors such as cold shock and conditions on the day.

To find a water safety course or adult learn-to-swim course near you contact Royal Life Saving Society or your local pool or council.

Read more: Govt pledges $16m to Surf Life Saving NSW

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