This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.
Slips and falls are a serious health risk for older people and can be lethal. Planning ahead and getting some exercise can help reduce the risk of falling.
Every 20 minutes an older person dies because of a fall. One in 5 falls results in serious injury, and 7 million falls require medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Falls are so common that those numbers, which are from 2014 and the most recent available, are probably low. Many falls go unreported, said Kathleen Cameron, senior director of the National Council on Aging’s National Falls Prevention Resource Center.
Plan of care
A person is less likely to suffer fall-related hospitalizations when they have a “fall plan of care,” according to new research featuring faculty at Binghamton University, State University at New York.
“Fall prevention activities such as raising awareness about fall risk, identifying individual risk for fall, discussing fall risk prevention strategies and providing referrals to fall risk reduction programs in the community for older adults were shown to reduce fall-related hospitalizations,” Yvonne Johnston, research associate professor at the Binghamton University Decker School of Nursing and corresponding author of the paper, said in a statement.
The No. 1 thing people should know is that falls are preventable, said Dr. Marcia Ory, regents and distinguished professor in the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. A fall plan of care can bring to light the reasons why a person is at risk of falling, she said.
A good balance and exercise program is a key tactic to prevent falls, Ory said. That doesn’t mean a person needs to start an intensive cardiovascular workout every other day. Stretching and walking a few times a week can help increase muscle fiber.
“People who slip or fall get nervous about falling. They stay inactive and their muscles weaken, which makes them more prone to falling. It’s a vicious cycle,” Ory said.
Area Agencies on Aging and most communities offer free exercise programs for seniors, Ory said. To find your local Area Agency on Aging, visit n4a.org.
Exercise alone won’t cure the risk of falling.
“You have to be more aware of your environment and wear better shoes,” Cameron said. In addition to making sure they fit properly, invest in shoes with non-slip soles — especially in winter. Products like Yaktrax stand up to snow and ice with grippy or spiky traction cleats that can be slipped onto your own footwear, Cameron said.
In winter people who use canes should change them out with for ones with a spiky tip, Cameron said.
Making small upgrades around the home such as adding railings on stairs, improving lighting and installing grab bars in bathrooms and toilet seats a few inches higher also help prevent falls. Tile floors are slippery; a better alternative is cork flooring, Ory said. Its softness can minimize the brunt of a fall as well.
People who are on multiple medications for high blood pressure, chronic illnesses and pain should review them with their doctor or pharmacist because combined they can put a person at risk for becoming unsteady and falling, Ory said.
‘You are not alone’
Know that if you’ve fallen before you are more at risk of falling again, Ory said.
Many people hide the fact that they’ve fallen because they are fearful if family members find out they might lose their independence, Ory said.
“Talk to your family members about falls. Make a plan. Know falls are preventable and there are many things you can do to prevent falling. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist and your family. You are not alone,” Ory said.