Falling down should not be an unavoidable result of aging, but unfortunately statistics show that over 30% of Americans aged 65+ fall every year. In fact, the National Council on Aging reports that every 11 seconds an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult 75+ dies from a fall. With more than 10,000 older Americans turning 65 each day, how can we prevent the surge expected in fall-related injuries or death from ensuing trauma?
Just understanding what causes falls for those aging normally, or individuals with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s can reduce risk. Anticipating what is needed and fixing what’s wrong can decrease falls, fracture, and hospitalization. Remember, falls have other detrimental effects besides injuries. Fear of falling (or of falling again) can result in loss of confidence and reduced activity, resulting in poor muscle strength, physical decline, depression and isolation.
Many factors influence why people fall. Naturally, risk increases with age due to medical conditions and medications, as much as muscle deterioration. Fatigue often increases the risk of falls. Add in auditory and visual impairment which affect balance and movement, and you have a recipe for risk.
Falls can be caused by certain drugs that precipitate a sudden drop in blood pressure if a person stands up too quickly and becomes dizzy. Some prescription drugs cause double vision. Antidepressants, or hypnotics that facilitate sleep, can cause lingering drowsiness, increasing the chance of a fall. Other fall factors include leg, foot, or back pain.
Sedentary Seniors are at high risk for falls from lack of balance and strength caused by too much sitting and not enough standing and walking. Exercise is an important part of healthy aging. Many doctors recommend low impact, Yoga-like exercise for stretching, strengthening, and better balance. It is a common misconception that older adults are too frail to do much more than seated chair exercises. Talk to your doctor about the importance of weight bearing exercise specifically designed to strengthen thigh muscles to help with getting up and down, and to be able to resist forces when balance is lost.
People who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's, or dementia with Lewy Bodies are at a higher risk of falling. Declines in gait, balance, depth perception and muscle strength are the culprits. In instances of cognitive decline, falls are common when loved ones try to walk independently, or get up out of a chair or the bed, and it is not safe to do so. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can affect the visual-spatial abilities, making it easy to misjudge steps, and uneven or shiny areas underfoot. For those with Parkinson’s the risk for falls is exacerbated by the fact that the person tends to lean forward and bend the head, which shifts both weight and the center of gravity. Shuffling adds to the probability they will stumble. Many doctors now recommend active exercise as an element essential to good balance and a more active life for Parkinson’s patients.
Here are some practical solutions for the whole family to stay “fall free:”
- Clean up spills in the kitchen immediately; watch for water splashes in the bathroom
- Get rid of area rugs and mats; even with a non-slip back you can still trip over them
- Install rails on any stairs; highlight the edges of the steps in contrasting material
- Don’t climb, stay off stepping stools, and watch what you reach for – keep everyday items on the counter or bottom shelf of a cabinet
- Keep floors clear of clutter like wires, cords, toys, purses, magazines, books, etc.
- Always know where your pets are– tripping over a sleeping dog or cat can land you in the hospital
- Install grab bars or seats in the shower or tub, and add a rubber mat for safety
- Invest in automatic night lights, make sure all areas are well lit day or night, especially hallways and stairs
- Don’t be afraid to speak up if medications are making you dizzy or lightheaded
- If you or someone you love has a cane or walker – USE THEM!
Do a household audit to uncover hazards. Often someone you love is in denial or lying about their falls because they fear losing their independence. Look-out for red flags like bruising, bleeding, abrasions, ripped clothing, and broken household items. Help is needed if they seem to be in physical pain that could have been caused by a fall. If you find someone that has fallen, seek medical attention! The bones of the elderly, especially those with osteoporosis, break easily. If the individual is taking blood thinners and has hit their head, they will need a scan to rule out brain bleeding and trauma.
Physical limitations are an unwelcome reality as we age, but how do you suggest a cane or walker to a spouse or parent when you know they will be insulted? Tell loved ones how much YOU love them and worry! If you find that falls are far too common in the house and present a danger, there may be benefit to an in-home safety assessment and consideration of a “Life-Alert” system or home care assistance.
- Irv Seldin, JD, Owner, Visiting Angels of the Palm Beaches
This article is not intended as medical advice. Visiting Angels of the Palm Beaches has a refreshing approach to homecare relationships. Let our “Angels” help you or a loved one recover from illness, accident or surgery, or assist with the care and companionship needed to remain comfortably and safely at home while aging in place or dealing with the daily demands of living with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Call 561-328-7611 or visit www.VisitingAngels.com/PalmBeaches.