By Alice Kim, MD
If you are an older adult a simple thing can change your life, like tripping on uneven pavement or slipping on a slick surface. If you fall, you could break a bone, like thousands of older men and women do every year. Although a broken bone might not sound bad, it could prompt more serious health issues.
Many things can cause a fall. Your eyesight, hearing and reflexes might not be as sharp as they were when you were younger. Diabetes, heart disease or problems with your thyroid, nerves, feet or blood vessels can affect your balance. In addition, some medications can cause you to feel dizzy or sleepy and make you more likely to fall.
However, it’s important to not allow a fear of falling keep you from being active. Doing things like gathering with friends, gardening, walking or going to the local senior center helps you stay healthy. The good news is there are simple ways to prevent most falls.
Do the right things
If you take care of your overall health, you may be able to lower your chances of falling. Most of the time, falls and accidents don’t just happen. Here are a few tips intended to help you avoid falls and broken bones:
· Stay physically active. Plan an individualized exercise program that works for you. Regular exercise improves muscle health and makes you stronger. It also helps keep your joints, tendons and ligaments flexible. Mild weight-bearing activities – such as walking or climbing stairs – can help slow bone loss from osteoporosis.
· Undergo vision and hearing tests. Even small changes in sight and hearing may cause someone to fall. When you get new eyeglasses, make time to get used to them. Always wear your glasses when you need them. If you have a hearing aid, make sure it fits well and wear it.
· Learn the side effects of any medicine you take. If a drug makes you drowsy or dizzy, tell your provider or pharmacist.
· Get sufficient restful sleep. Older adult who are tired are more likely to fall.
· Curtail the amount of alcohol you consume. Even small amounts of alcohol can affect a person’s balance and reflexes.
· Stand slowly. Getting up too quickly can cause your blood pressure to fall, which can cause someone to feel unsteady on their feet.
· Use a cane or walking stick if you need help feeling steady on your feet. If your provider tells you to use a walking aid, make sure it is the right size and that it helps you move smoothly. This is important when you’re walking in unfamiliar areas or places where the walking surface is uneven.
· Be cautious when navigating wet or icy surfaces. Spread sand or salt on slick areas near your front and/or back door.
· Wear non-skid, rubber-soled, low-heeled shoes that support your feet. The bottom of your shoes should not be too thin or too thick. Also, avoid walking on stairs or floors in socks or shoes with smooth soles.
· And always tell your provider if you’ve fallen since your last visit – even if you avoided injury when you fell.
Osteoporosis is a disease that weakens and compromises bones. Many people think osteoporosis is unique to women, but it also affects older men. Even a minor fall can be dangerous among people affected by osteoporosis. This is why it’s important to speak with your provider about being tested for osteoporosis.
Make your home safe
There are many changes that can be made to homes that will help older adults avoid falls and stay safe.
In stairways, hallways and pathways
· Have handrails on both sides of the stairs and ensure they’re tightly secured. Hold the handrails when you go up or down the stairs. If you must carry something while you’re using stairs, hold it in one hand and use the handrail with the other. Do not allow what you’re carrying to impede your view of the steps.
· Make sure there is good lighting with light switches at the top and bottom of stairwells and at each end of a long hall.
· Keep areas where you walk tidy so you are less likely to trip.
· Check all carpets to make sure they are firmly fixed to the floor. Place no-slip strips on tile and wooden floors.
· Avoid using small area rugs.
· Mount grab bars near toilets and on both the inside and outside of bathtubs and showers.
· Place non-skid mats, strips or carpet on all surfaces that could get wet.
· Remember to turn on night lights.
· Place night lights and light switches close to your bed.
· Keep your telephone near your bed.
In living areas
· Keep electric cords near walls and away from walking paths.
· Secure carpets and large area rugs firmly to floors.
· Arrange furniture and other objects so they’re not in the way when you walk.
· Ensure chairs and sofas are the right height to easily get in and out of them.
· Do not walk on freshly washed, slick floors.
· Keep often-used items within easy reach.
· Do not stand on chairs or tables to reach things that are too high. Instead, use a grabbing tool or ask for help. If you use a step stool, make sure it’s steady and has a handrail on top. It is also recommended to have someone hold the step stool so that it doesn’t wobble.
· Know where your pet is whenever you’re standing or walking so that you don’t trip on them.
· Keep emergency numbers in large print on or near each telephone.
Older adults can also think about getting a home-monitoring system for added safety. Most of them require that you wear a button on a chain around your neck. If you fall or need emergency assistance, you simply push the button to alert the service. Unfortunately, neither Medicare nor most private health insurance companies cover home-monitoring systems. So, be sure to inquire about costs.
Home improvements prevent falls
Many state and local governments have education and/or home modification programs to help older adults prevent falls. Check with your local health department, senior affairs office or area agency on aging to see if there is a program near you.
Just as preventive medicine is helpful to long-term health, there are numerous proactive things older adults can – and should – do to avoid falls. So, if you’re a senior and haven’t done many of these things, I encourage you to prioritize putting them in place sooner rather than later. After all, there is no time like the present, especially when it comes to helping preserve your health.
Alice Kim, MD, is board certified in Primary Care and Internal Medicine. She has a strong interest in Geriatrics and practices at Virginia Mason Issaquah Medical Center (100 N.E. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah, WA 98027; 425-557-8000).
For more information about fall prevention and related health topics, visit these helpful websites:
· National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (cdc.gov/ncipc)
· National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modifications (homemods.org)