Protecting older people from the risk of a dangerous fall

Today through Friday is Fall Prevention Awareness Week.

Each year, one in four older adults falls. Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries for people age 65 and older. Even falls without a major injury can cause an older adult to become fearful or depressed.

The good news is most falls can be prevented. Some factors to look for that can lead to a fall —

— Balance and gait: As we age, we lose coordination, flexibility, and balance — primarily through inactivity, making it easier to fall.

— Vision: Less light reaches the retina in the aging eye, making contrasting edges, tripping hazards and obstacles harder to see.

— Medications: Some prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can cause dizziness, or interactions with each other that can lead to a fall.

— 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.

— Chronic conditions: More than 90% of older adults have at least one chronic condition like diabetes, stroke or arthritis. These increase the risk of falling due to loss of function, inactivity, pain or multiple medications.

Six easy steps to take to reduce the risk of a fall:

1. Enlist the person’s support in taking simple steps to stay safe. Ask if he or she is concerned about falling. Many older adults know that falling is a risk, but they believe it won’t happen to them or they won’t get hurt — even if they’ve fallen in the past. If they’re concerned about falling, dizziness or balance, suggest they discuss it with their health care provider who can assess their personal risk and suggest programs or services that could help.

2. Discuss their current health conditions. Find out if they are experiencing any problems with managing their own health. Are they having trouble remembering to take their medications — or are they experiencing side effects? Is it getting more difficult for them to do things they used to do easily? Are hearing and vision changes becoming problematic? Take advantage of all the preventive benefits now offered under Medicare, such as the annual Wellness visit, which reviews their functional ability, level of safety and fall risk assessment.

3. Ask about their last eye checkup. If they wear glasses, make sure they have a current prescription and are wearing the glasses as intended. Bifocals can be problematic on stairs, so be cautious.

4. Notice if they hold onto walls, furniture, or someone else when walking or appear to have difficulty getting up from a chair. These are all signs that it might be time to see a physical therapist. A trained physical therapist can help improve their balance, strength, and gait through exercise. They might also suggest a cane or walker — and provide guidance on proper use of these aids. Poorly fit aids actually can increase the risk of falling.

5. Talk about their medications. If they have a hard time keeping track of medicines or are experiencing side effects, discuss these concerns with their doctor and pharmacist. Beware of non-prescription medications that contain sleep aids — including painkillers with “PM” in the name. These can lead to balance issues and dizziness. Have them talk to their doctor or pharmacist about safer alternatives.

6. Do a walk-through safety assessment of their home. There are many simple and inexpensive ways to make a home safer. Here are some examples:

— Lighting: Increase lighting throughout the house, especially at the top and bottom of stairs. Ensure that lighting is readily available when getting up in the middle of the night; use tap or motion lights if necessary. Those 65 and older need, on average, two to three times more light to see than when they were younger.

— Stairs: Install handrails on all stairs and make sure any carpeting or treads are secure.

— Bathrooms: Install grab bars in the tub/shower and near the toilet. Make sure they’re installed where they would actually use them. For even greater safety, consider using a shower chair and hand-held shower.

To learn more about falls prevention, go to The Centers for Disease Control home assessment checklist at www.cdc.gov and search “falls checklist” to download a copy, or The National Council on Aging falls prevention page at www.ncoa.org/FallsPrevention.

For falls prevention no-cost programming or workshops in the area, check with the U.P. Regional Area Agency on Aging-UPCAP, at www.upcap.org/events or by dialing 211.


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