Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on August 9, 2021.

Older, Alone, and At-Risk

An important new NFPA report identifies a significant fire risk for seniors—a risk that grows even larger for older Americans living alone


A little over a year ago, I began working on a project to examine how fire safety in the United States has evolved since 1980. My collaborator was Marty Ahrens, manager of fire analysis services at NFPA, and together we took a big-picture look at fire trends over the last four decades—the successes, the continued challenges, and the emerging concerns we will need to address in the years ahead.

The result, with assistance from the Fire Protection Research Foundation, was “Fire Safety in the United States Since 1980: Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem,” published in June. Of the array of topics we addressed, one of the most troubling is the persistent impact of fire on older adults.

In 1980, people 65 and over and children under five shared a roughly equal percentage of home fire deaths in the US. But while children under five now account for just a small fraction of those deaths, people 65 and over have had their percentage of home fire fatalities nearly double. A closer look at the contributing factors revealed a complex blend of societal and safety issues. One thing is clear: As the population grows older, and with people wanting to stay in their own homes as they age, we face a major challenge—and a significant research need—if we hope to avoid a rising fire death toll among seniors.

Studies from around the world have found that people who live alone, regardless of age, face a higher risk of fire death, and that risk increases as we age. In the US, the number of people living alone is growing, and a significant percentage are seniors. According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, by 2038 there will be as many as 10 million single-person households with someone 80 or older if the current aging-alone trend continues.

Disabilities also increase with age and can affect self-care and the ability of people to live independently. American Community Survey data show that in the US, at least half of all people 75 or older have one or more disabilities. Our study found that in 2014–2018, 17 percent of fatal fire victims who were 80 or older were unable to act at the time of the fire. Nearly one-third had some type of disability.

Housing stock across the country is also getting older. According to data from the American Housing Survey, the median age of occupied housing in the US has steadily increased since the mid-1980s. The survey data illustrate that in 2019, older adults were most likely to live in homes built in the 1970s. The age of a building isn’t the only factor, of course; more important is whether the building is properly maintained. It is an unfortunate fact that elderly people living alone in older homes can find it difficult to keep up with maintenance, and this can also pose safety risks.

The research needs in these areas are immense. I admit that I am closer to being a senior than a teenager, so I have a personal interest in meeting this challenge. I have spent my career searching for ways to make our built environment safer from fire, and what I’ve learned since I’ve been at NFPA is that most of the common causes of fire are related to human actions—or inaction. This is especially true for fires in our homes, and it is doubly true when the occupant is an older person. We urgently need dedicated research to understand these risks and to identify means of mitigation.

This work will take many forms, but I think we can all agree that it is unacceptable that growing older should be accompanied by a higher risk of dying in a fire.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is director of the Applied Research Group at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler