Fall Risk, Part 1: Watch Your Step

            It is not news that seniors are at higher risk for falls, is it?  Everyone has elderly friends or family members who have suffered from falls. In fact, it is so common that we are inclined to think of falls as an inevitable part of aging.  But the truth is that falls are largely preventable.  Edward L. Schneider, M.D., Emeritus Dean of the USC School of Gerontology, put it this way:  “Age increases the risk of falling, but you can take steps that significantly reduce that risk.”        

            The consequences of falls can be dire:  fractures can make it hard to do daily tasks, cause pain and immobility, and can even be fatal.  A mere sprained muscle can take longer to heal and cause secondary problems for an elderly person.  But, fear of falling should be an impetus to take preventive action, not a handicap that chains you to an armchair.

            One common risk factor is impaired balance.  Balance can decline with age for a variety of reasons, and can be worsened by certain medical conditions (such as Parkinsons’s Disease), inner ear problems, blood-pressure medications, or recent physical injury or illness.  This instability can make you avoid activity, but, ironically, physical activities like balance exercises, tai chi, and yoga can make you less likely to fall than if you remain sedentary.  Ten minutes a day of balance training can have significant benefits.  Examples of simple balance exercises include standing on one foot, walking heel to toe, backward walking, sideways walking, and standing from a sitting position.  If you feel unsteady, do the exercises holding onto a support, like a sturdy piece of furniture. A knowledgeable tai chi or yoga instructor can help you learn ways to exercise safely.

            The next step experts recommend to prevent falls  is to get rid of the fall hazards in your home.  Here are some examples:

           Remove floor rugs, especially unsecured, throw rugs;

           Move furniture that obstructs walkways through the house;

           Relocate objects like coffee tables or magazine racks that are easy to trip over;

           Place brighter lights in hallways, and put a nightlight between the bedroom and bathroom;

           Trade out rocking chairs or swiveling recliners for stable, fixed chairs, especially in places where you are likely to steady yourself on them.

            Sometimes, the dangerous object is literally a moving target, like a cat or dog who gets under your feet.  According to the Center for Disease Control, pets are a significant cause of falls.  Pets are health-enhancing in many ways, and I would be the last person to advocate getting rid of them, but you do need to watch your step around them.  Be aware of the pet’s whereabouts.  A jingly bell on a collar can alert you that Coco is walking by your feet.

            Children of seniors can assist this process by setting aside a day to help move furniture, remove clutter from walkways, and work with their parents to make the home safer. The time investment will pay real dividends down the road for both the elder and his helper.

            Preventing falls also requires an acceptance of slower reaction times, vision or hearing difficulties, and new demands on attention. Avoiding falls requires a conscious effort to slow down and focus on what you’re doing.  There is a fine line between recognizing the reality of aging and letting yourself be overwhelmed by it.  I think the right balance is best found by being rational about limitations, taking steps to remain healthy while continuing to actively pursue life.  You can still navigate the stairs, the trail to Hidden Lake, or the muddy back yard, but you won’t do it as quickly or without watching your step.