As I write this, and likely as you read it, the world is focused on the coronavirus and the serious health risks it poses to older adults. While the coronavirus is certainly worthy of all the attention it is getting, unfortunately it is not the only risk facing our seniors. There is another cause of injury that causes a death to an older American. Fortunately, it’s not contagious, and it is preventable—if you know what to do. What is this scourge?
If you guessed “falls,” you are absolutely right. For younger people, most falls injure nothing more than their pride. But even a minor tumble can result in serious consequences for an older person—perhaps permanent ones.
Falls are especially dangerous for the elderly because they may have fragile, porous bones due to osteoporosis. And while young people break bones, too, they heal much more quickly. Falls also happen much more frequently among the elderly. The reasons won’t surprise you: declining vision, low muscle tone, side effects from medication that affect balance, disease such as Parkinson’s or arthritis, and more. In fact, even the assistive devices that are intended to help prevent falls can lead to them instead if not used properly.
What may surprise you is the fact that fatal falls among older people have more than tripled in the past few decades. More than 26,000 deaths per year in this population are due to falls. Even non-fatal falls can drastically affect the quality of life of senior citizens. They may suffer terrible pain, have to leave their home to get the needed level of care, and be unable to participate in activities that gave their lives meaning. In addition, being unable to move around well while a broken leg or hip heals means less exercise and increased weakness and frailty, from which they may never recover.
Given the seriousness of falls for seniors, it makes sense to do everything possible to prevent them. Here are five things you can do to prevent falls for an older person you care about.
That Persian rug that graces your mother’s hardwood floors may be beautiful, but it’s also likely to be a tripping hazard. Even with a rug pad underneath to keep it from bunching up, or carpet tape to prevent the corners from curling, it still poses a danger. Throw rugs and hallway runners are one of the most frequent causes of trips and falls. Replace them with wall-to-wall carpet, hardwood, or bamboo flooring.
Another common cause of falls is bending over. Many older people bend over to pick up something they have dropped on the floor, lose their balance, and fall. What’s a senior who lives alone supposed to do if they drop something? One option is to have a grabbing tool that doesn’t require bending over. Bonus: a grabbing tool can also be used to retrieve items from higher shelves and cabinets, avoiding the need to climb up on a footstool.
Options for making the bathroom more safe include grippy decals on the floor of the tub or shower and installing grab bars in the shower and near the toilet.
Bathrooms are, unsurprisingly, a common site of falls. The combination of slick surfaces like tile floors or slippery tubs, and water everywhere, is a recipe for disaster. In addition, if the only shower available requires an older person to have to step over the edge of a tub to get in and out, a fall at some point is almost inevitable. Options for making the bathroom more safe include grippy decals on the floor of the tub or shower and installing grab bars in the shower and near the toilet. If finances permit, consider a renovation of the bathroom to include a zero-entry shower or walk-in tub.
If your loved one already struggles with muscle weakness or physical pain, they may prefer to stay put as much as possible, and exercise may be a challenge. Unfortunately, muscle strength isn’t like money in the bank: you don’t save it by not using it. The more a senior moves, the better for the sake of their muscle strength and tone. At a minimum, an older person should get up and move every couple of hours, but ideally, more frequently than that.
Here are some strength and balance training exercises for seniors; they should be done while another person is present especially if the senior already struggles with balance issues.
Your loved one’s level of risk for falls will depend on a few factors, including their own health issues and their particular environment. You can probably do a fair job of identifying hazards (like that hallway runner with the curled edge) but you may miss some of them. That’s where an in-home safety assessment by a professional geriatric care manager can help. Someone who regularly works with older people has a trained eye for trip and fall hazards and will quickly pick up on risks that you might not.
He or she can size up your loved one’s areas of weakness, such as low vision or arthritis. A geriatric care manager can also assess the environment and recommend changes, many of which are low- or no-cost fixes.
If you have concerns about the safety of an older loved one, we are here to help. Contact our law office for more help and suggestions.