Note: This is a guest post from Bonita (Lynn) Beattie, Vice President, Injury Prevention, National Council on Aging.
One in three older Americans falls every year. Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for people aged 65+. Falls can result in hip fractures, broken bones and head injuries. Even falls without a major injury can cause an older adult to become fearful or depressed, making it difficult for them to stay active.
Just ask Marjorie Brown of Seattle.
“In the past, I had fallen many times and had suffered from broken bones over and over again,” she says. “I couldn’t figure out why I was falling. I was standing at the kitchen table, turned around and I just fell – for no reason. Then at the beauty shop, I got my foot caught in the ring around the chair and had a terrible fall and broke my ankle.”
The broken ankle quickly led to a broken spirit. “I got so depressed because I couldn’t walk to the bus stop … I was just staying at home feeling more and more depressed and hopeless.”
Then, Marjorie enrolled in a class at the Southeast Seattle Senior Center called A Matter of Balance. The workshop emphasizes practical strategies to reduce the fear of falling.
“I’m a lot stronger now, both because of the exercises we did in the balance class and the chair exercise classes,” Marjorie says. “I’ve added grab bars in the bathroom and now I have night lights wherever I need them … I learned to wear the proper shoes and not to rush to answer the telephone when it rings. I learned to change old habits and develop new, safer habits.”
You can also take steps to reduce falls.
If you have an aging parent, grandparent or neighbor like Marjorie in your life, helping them reduce their risk of falling is a great way to help them stay healthy and independent as long as possible. Sept. 22 is National Falls Prevention Awareness Day, sponsored by the National Council on Aging’s Falls Free© Initiative. This year, 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico will be hosting health fairs, falls risk screenings and other events to educate older adults about this critical health issue.
The good news about falls is that most of them can be prevented. The key is to know where to look. Here are some common factors that can lead to a fall, and steps you can take to help reduce this risk:
- Balance and gait: As we age, most of us lose some coordination, flexibility, and balance — primarily through inactivity, making it easier to fall. Take notice if your older loved ones are holding onto walls, furniture or someone else when walking or if they appear to have difficulty walking or arising from a chair.
- Vision: In the aging eye, less light reaches the retina, making contrasting edges, tripping hazards and obstacles harder to see. If your older loved one wears glasses, make sure they have a current prescription and they’re using the glasses as advised by their eye doctor.
- Medications: Some prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can cause dizziness, dehydration or interactions with each other that can lead to a fall. Find out if your older loved one is experiencing any problems with managing their own health. Talk to them about their medications.
- Environment: Most seniors have lived in their homes for a long time and have never thought about simple modifications that might keep it safer as they age. Do a walk-through safety assessment of their home.
- Chronic conditions: More than 90% of older adults have at least one chronic condition like diabetes, stroke or arthritis. Often, these increase the risk of falling because they result in lost function, inactivity, depression, pain or multiple medications. A trained physical therapist can help your older loved one improve their balance, strength and gait through exercise.
For more ideas on how to make the home safer, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers a home assessment checklist in multiple languages. NCOA, the Administration on Aging, and the CDC also promote a variety of community-based programs, like A Matter of Balance, Stepping On, and Tai Chi, that can help older adults improve their balance and learn how to reduce their risk of falling. Contact your Area Agency on Aging to find out what’s available in your area.
Photo credit: Jean Anton, Southeast Seattle Senior Center, courtesy of the National Council on Aging.