Did you know that one in four older Americans falls each year? Falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries in people 65 years of age and older. Falls can lead to hip fractures, fractures, and head injuries. Even falls without a major injury can make an older person fearful or depressed, making it difficult for them to stay active. If you have an aging parent, grandparent, or neighbor in your life, helping them lower their risk of falling is a great way to help them stay healthy and independent for as long as possible.
The good news about falls is that most of them are preventable. The key is knowing where to look. Here are some common factors that can lead to a fall:
• Balance and Gait: As we age, most of us lose coordination, flexibility and balance mainly due to inactivity, which makes it easier to fall.
• Vision: In the aging eye, less light reaches the retina, making contrasting edges, tripping hazards, and obstacles more difficult to see.
• Medication: Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause dizziness, dehydration, or interactions that can lead to a fall.
• Environment: Most older people have lived in their homes for a long time and have never thought of simple modifications that could make it safer as they get older.
• Chronic diseases: More than 80% of the elderly suffer from at least one chronic disease such as diabetes, stroke or arthritis. Often these increase the risk of falls because they lead to loss of function, inactivity, depression, pain, or taking multiple medications.
Steps to Reduce the Risk of Falls – Here are six steps you can take today to help your older loved one reduce their risk of falling:
1. Get their support by taking simple steps to stay safe.
Ask your loved one if they are afraid of falling. Many older people recognize that falling is a risk, but believe that it will not happen to them or that they will not hurt themselves even if they have fallen in the past. If they are concerned about falls, dizziness, or balance, suggest that they discuss it with their health care provider who can assess their risk and suggest programs or services that might help them.
2. Discuss their current state of health.
Find out if your loved one is having problems managing their own health. Do they have trouble remembering to take their medication or are they experiencing side effects? Did it become more difficult for them to do things that they did easily? Also, make sure they take advantage of any preventative benefits now offered with Medicare, such as the Annual Wellness Visit. Encourage them to speak openly with their health care provider about any concerns.
3. Find out about their latest eye exam.
If your older loved one wears glasses, make sure he has an up-to-date prescription and uses the glasses as advised by his eye doctor. Keep in mind that using color change lenses can be dangerous when going from bright sunshine to dark buildings and homes. A simple strategy is to change glasses at the entrance or stop until their lenses adjust. Bifocals can be problematic on stairs as well, so it’s important to be careful. For people already struggling with low vision, consult a low vision specialist to find out how to get the most out of their sight.
4. Notice if they are holding onto walls, furniture, or someone else when they walk, or if they seem to have difficulty walking or getting up from a chair.
These are all signs that it might be time to see a physiotherapist. A trained physiotherapist can help your older loved one improve their balance, strength, and gait through exercise. They might also suggest a cane or walker and provide advice on how to use these aids. Make sure you follow their advice. Poorly adjusted aids can actually increase the risk of falling.
5. Talk about their medications.
If your loved one is having trouble keeping up with medications or experiencing side effects, encourage them to discuss their concerns with their doctor and pharmacist. Suggest that they have their medications reviewed each time they receive a new prescription. Perhaps a spreadsheet can help keep track of medications and schedules or adding a timed medication dispenser that informs you or your loved one of refills will promote their peace of mind and allow compliance with a prescribed diet. Also beware of over the counter medications that contain sleeping pills, including pain relievers with “PM” in their name. These can cause balance problems and dizziness. If your loved one is having trouble sleeping, encourage them to talk to their doctor or pharmacist about safer alternatives.
6. Do a home security assessment.
There are many easy and inexpensive ways to make a home more secure. For professional assistance, consult an occupational therapist. Here are some examples:
Lighting: Increase the lighting throughout the house, especially at the top and bottom of the stairs. Make sure the lighting is readily available when you get up in the middle of the night.
Stairs: Make sure there are two secure rails on all stairs.
Bathrooms: Install grab bars in the tub / shower and near the toilet. Make sure they are installed where your next of kin would actually use them. For even more safety, consider using a shower chair and a hand shower.
Gail Gilman, Family Life Consultant, M.Ed., CFCS and Professor Emeritus – University of Minnesota at [email protected]