Reducing Risk Factors for Falling in Older Adults
Many of us may remember a line from a commercial for a medical alerting system that was an elderly woman’s cry for help after falling on the floor: "I've fallen and I can't get up!" The inconic line has been mocked by the media and has been taken lightly by most people, but the threat of injury is a real concern for older adults and caregivers of seniors. Injuries due to falls are the number one reason for the hospitalization of older adults.
Factors that can increase the risk of falling:
- Experiencing a fall during the last year
- Taking four or more prescription medications
- Having a history of Parkinson’s disease or stroke
- Having problems with balance and movement
- Having certain health conditions such as eye and ear disorders or mobility issues
- Being unable to stand up from a sitting position without using your arms for support
- Not participating in certain activities because of a fear of falling.
Anyone can experience a fall regardless of their age, fitness level, or conditions in their environment, but older adults are more susceptible to falling. Over time, they can become frail, and find it more difficult to rise from a sitting position or walk around. Seniors should be aware of the potential risk factors because falls can cause strains or fractures that can lead to chronic pain, disability, the loss of independence, life threatening injuries or a reluctance to participate in everyday activities.
Same level falls
Falls that happen while seniors are sitting or standing on the ground have been considered to be minor mishaps that do not require treatment by medical practitioners.
Recent research studies, however, such as those by the Mayo Clinic and the Canadian Physiotherapy Association show that falls in older adults can cause serious injuries such as facial, hip, rib, and wrist fractures, and may even lead to death.
If you are concerned about the possibility of falling, there are several steps that you take to reduce your risk.
Talk to your doctor
The Mayo Clinic recommends that you make a list of the over-the-counter and prescription medications and supplements that you are taking before the appointment. You can also bring the medications to the appointment with you.
Your doctor can review your medications and discuss possible interactions and side effects that can increase your risk of falling. Your doctor may decide to wean you off medications such as antidepressants or sedatives.
Tell the doctor about previous falls with details such as when, where, and how you fell. Also talk about times when you nearly fell but grabbed something in time or were caught by someone. Your doctor may be able to suggest some fall-prevention strategies.
Discuss any health conditions with your doctor that could increase your risk of falling. Your doctor will want to know how comfortable you feel when you are walking and whether you feel dizziness, numbness or shortness of breath, or joint pain. Your doctor may evaluate your walking style, balance, and muscle strength.
Talk to your doctor about physical activities as walking, or gentle exercises such as tai chi or water workouts. Physical activities reduce the risk of falling by improving coordination, strength, and balance, and increasing strength and flexibility. The doctor may recommend that you work with a physical therapist.
Work with a physical therapist
Physical therapists (also called physiotherapists) can provide tips for safe living and recommend exercise programs that can reduce the risk of falling. They are also are able to provide treatments that restore body function after a fall has happened such as strength-building activities and balance exercises.
Making the home a safe place
Over half of seniors fall at home. You should be able to navigate through your house safely, especially if you have conditions such as a visual impairment or limited mobility.
Home safety measures:
- Loose rugs should be secured with double-faced tape, tacks or have a slip-resistant back
- Loose floorboards should be repaired
- Steps with bare wood should have nonslip treads
- Staircases should have railings on both sides
- Clear pathways are needed throughout the home by removing phone cords, electrical cords, and boxes
- The bathroom needs to have nonslip mats and grab bars
- Any spilled liquids should be cleaned immediately to avoid slipping
- The home should be well-lit, with table lamps and have nightlights that can be used in case you have to get up in the night
- A lamp should be kept within reach of the bed
- Make clear paths to light switches that are not near entrances and consider using glow-in-the-dark or illuminated switches
- Turn the lights on before going up or down stairs
- Keep a flashlight handy in case of power outages
Wear appropriate shoes
Shoes should be sturdy, fit properly, and have nonskid soles. Walking in stocking feet or wearing floppy slippers, high heels, or shoes with slick soles increases the chances that you will slip or stumble.
Use assistive and safety devices
Walkers and canes can help prevent falls. There are a number of items that can be installed to increase safety such as grab bars in the shower, a sturdy plastic seat for the tub, a hand-held shower nozzle, and a raised toilet seat or one with arm rests.
There are gentle exercises that can be done to improve strength, balance, reflexes, coordination, and body awareness and increase mobility.
Older adults do face a higher risk of falling because of their physical health and medication use, but these strategies can help reduce the chances of a tumble in the future.
As people age, no fall is minor, Mayo Clinic
Are you at risk for a fall? Canadian physiotherapists identify key factors for tumbles in older adults, Canadian Physiotherapy Association
Fall prevention: Simple tips to prevent falls, Mayo Clinic
© 2015 Carola Finch