Study highlights water safety risks for older Australians

4 August 2021

Royal Life Saving WA, in partnership with the Collaboration for Evidence, Impact and Research in Public Health (CERIPH) at Curtin University, recently released the results of a study into the experience and attitudes of older Western Australians related to swimming and water safety. The research collated and evaluated responses from interviews completed with 15 participants aged 65 and over from metro and regional WA.

The study was undertaken as part of an honours degree completed by Royal Life Saving WA Health Promotion, Research and Evaluation Officer Meg Abercromby, who says it gave some great insight into the lived experiences of the participants. “The 15 participants had a mixture of experiences in and around the water. Some had swum all their lives, others were scared of the water and had avoided it. It was a qualitative study, measuring life experience rather than quantifying things, therefore giving a deeper and richer understanding of how we can intervene and help this target group.”

Drowning data shows that on average over the past ten years 61 people aged 65 and over drown across Australia each year, accounting for 21% of drowning deaths. Some of the key findings of the study provided a worrying insight into the attitudes of older Australians that may contribute to these statistics.

The study found that individuals who perceived themselves as strong swimmers had a decreased perception of risk – meaning they may not easily be able to identify risks for drowning including environmental risks or personal risks such as a decrease in their physical fitness, while those who identified as weak swimmers were more likely to avoid risk and modify their behaviour, such as picking a calm spot to swim or avoiding the water in rough conditions.

As individuals age they tend to disengage with aquatic activities which can increase their risk when they do choose to participate, for example when they are on holidays or when the weather is particularly hot. For many of those taking part in the study body image is a barrier for aquatic participation, with many not keen to wear a bathing suit. It’s clear that this is issue requires further exploration so that it can be removed as a barrier to participation amongst this age group.

The responses of the participants also indicated that the media plays a role in creating a fear of the water for many – particularly around the risk of sharks and in perpetuating the myth that only overseas born visitors drown. Royal Life Saving WA is keen to work with popular media to raise awareness of these issues as part of future programming.

Drowning can happen at a range of locations, with rivers, creeks, lakes and dams accounting for a third of drowning deaths across Australia in 2019-20, however participants in this study predominantly discussed the beach and ocean as the riskiest locations highlighting a lack of awareness about the potential harms associated with other waterways. The findings also suggest that older adults have a relatively low water safety literacy and lack the understanding of the risk factors for drowning.

Royal Life Saving WA has used the findings of this study to inform it’s recently launched Make The Right Call adult water safety campaign, and will continue to be informed by this research and its recommendations when developing further population-health programming targeting people 65 years and over.