When you’re younger, falling may be nothing more than a bit embarrassing. However, as we get older it can be startling, upsetting, and life changing. Falls are a serious health issue among seniors, and unfortunately, falls are a common occurrence.
According to the National Council on Aging, every 11 seconds a senior is treated in the emergency department for a fall, and one in four Americans over the age of 65 experiences a fall each year.
September is Healthy Aging Month, which is a great time to highlight the importance of understanding what causes falls and how to avoid them.
Common causes for falls
It’s true that as we age, our chances of having a fall increase, but falls are not inevitable. Risk factors that can affect a person of any age include:
Weak muscles, especially in the legs
Poor balance, causing unsteadiness on your feet
Dizziness or lightheadedness
History of black outs, fainting, or loss of consciousness
Foot problems, including pain and deformities
Memory loss, confusion, or difficulties with thinking or problem solving
Vision and hearing problems
Taking medication that makes you dizzy or drowsy
Tips to avoid falls
Fall prevention is about identifying and managing the risks related to your health, wellbeing, and your environment. Consider the following:
1. Get your vision checked by a doctor. As you age, less light reaches the retina in your eye. This can make your vision blurry and tripping on unseen obstacles can make it easy to fall.
2. Install railings on stairs. Install railings on both sides of every staircase in your home. Rails on both sides allow you to maneuver the steps comfortably without having to rely as much on touch and sight. It can also help stabilize you while navigating the steps.
3. Light up your house. Turning on the lights throughout the house, especially at the bottom of stairs, improves visibility so you can avoid tripping.
4. Clear walking paths in every room of your house. Clear a path to and from every room throughout your house. Make sure you can see a path clearly and don’t store items on the floor. Clear walkways allow you to move quickly without worry of tripping.
5. Remove throw rugs and area carpets. Throw rugs are a common trip hazard in homes. By removing all area carpets and throw rugs you eliminate a foot, walker, or cane from catching the edge of the carpet and causing a fall.
6. Keep a phone close to your common seating area. Rushing to the phone for fear of missing a call is a common cause of falls for seniors. By keeping a phone close to a common seating area, you eliminate the rush to pick up the receiver. Setting up a voicemail box or answering machine is also useful. Additionally, many cell phone companies now offer easy to use phones for seniors which can be easily carried.
7. Exercise regularly to improve balance. As you age, it’s important to stay active and keep moving. Physical activity, even if it’s low-impact, can improve your core strength and balance. For example, a Tai Chi class, water aerobics, or simply walking can all help reduce your risk of falling.
8. Wear sensible shoes. Wear shoes that velcro or tie closed, fit properly, and have a rubber sole. Not only will they reduce your joint pain, they can help prevent you from slipping or stumbling. You can also speak with your doctor about specialty shoes that can be tailored to your needs.
After a fall
Falls can cause head injuries which can be very serious, especially if you are taking certain medicines (like blood thinners). An older person who falls and hits their head should see their doctor right away to make sure they don’t have a brain injury.
If you do fall, the first thing you need to do is stay calm. If you have a medical alert system, use it. You do not want to cause further injury from trying to move or get up after a fall. If you try to stand, it is easier to roll to one side, and then slowly pull yourself up on your hands and knees. Crawl to a sturdy chair or table and slowly push yourself up to standing. If you need immediate assistance and do not have a medical alert, try to safely reach a phone and call 911.
Prevention and planning are key
Many people who fall, even if they’re not injured, become afraid of falling. This fear may cause a person to cut down on their everyday activities. When a person is less active, they become weaker and this increases their chances of falling. Don’t let a fall limit you or a loved one’s quality of life.
Remember, older adults usually fall because multiple factors increase their risk, and a stumble or moment of weakness triggers the actual fall. Know that risk factors can be health-based and related to chronic medical conditions or medications, as well as environmental, and involve the home or outside environment. Work with your doctor to help you understand personal fall risk factors and develop an individualized fall prevention plan.