Fall Risk, Part 2: “A Wake-Up Fall”

            If you decide to be proactive in preventing falls, you may need to accept certain changes to your self-image. Some seniors fear that putting up handrails on their stairs, or walking with a cane, might make them “look old”.    But, in fact, a senior who uses a cane is the smart one, choosing to stay independent and healthy.  When Mary slipped on a porch step and twisted her ankle, she faced this choice point.  After a lifetime of doing aerobics and dancing, she was startled to realize how easy it is to fall, and how long it takes to recover.  During the six weeks she was hobbling around and nursing a swollen, tender ankle, she took steps to keep it from  happening again.  Mary now refers to that incident as a “wake-up fall”. 

            Here are some of the changes she made, based on expert guidelines for preventing falls. The stairs were #1.  The porch steps, that are exposed to weather, were particularly dangerous, so Mary hired a contractor with experience building and installing handrails.  The railing looked great, and was made more secure by a strip of nonskid tape along the top in case of rain or snow.  Because bathtubs and showers are frequent places for falls, Mary bought a nonslip bathtub mat to keep her feet from sliding. She also placed secure grab handles on the shower walls, for a place to hold onto while showering.  Modifying her environment addressed these two most common sites of  “slip and fall” accidents.

            When an elder’s balance is impaired, he may be at risk even when walking on a flat surface.  Besides the benefits of balance exercises (as in my last blog entry), many seniors find that a change of footwear is in order.  Slip-on shoes may be convenient, but they don’t provide stability or ankle support.  For seniors with balance problems, canes or walkers can help.  Both are available from medical equipment stores or pharmacies.  Walking with a cane or walker may seem simple, but using it wrong can feel awkward or lead to back pain. A physical therapist can help you find the best way to walk with a support.  In fact, a physical therapist is a great resource for all the steps of preventing falls, from providing feedback on home modifications to developing a custom exercise routine. You can find a physical therapist through a phone book, an internet search, or by asking your doctor’s office.

            Avoiding falls is one of the top ways for seniors to remain independent.  Think about the hazards in your environment, and consider ways to avoid them.  Children of seniors can help their parents by speaking up about potential dangers they see and helping to fix them.  Falls are, at the least, painful and embarrassing; they can also be life-threatening and debilitating.  If it seems like  a lot of trouble to change your home around or start a balance exercise routine, think how much trouble a hip fracture would be.