The Warning Signs of a Fall, and How to Prevent it

Seniors walking in woods

Stats on falls among seniors can be grim. According to facts about falls from the CDC:

  • In 2018, older adults reported 35.6 million falls
  • More than one-third of people 65 and older fall each year
  • 20 percent of falls cause a serious injury, such as head injuries and broken bones (more than 95 percent of hip fractures are caused by falls)
  • Each year, 3 million seniors go to emergency rooms for fall injuries, and at least 25,000 die from falls

Overall, falls are the leading case of both fatal and non-fatal injuries for older people.

These numbers can be frightening, but the good news is that falls are preventable. They are not a normal or inevitable part of ageing. With a few lifestyle and environmental changes, you can keep yourself (or your loved one) safer.

The Risk Factors for Falling

The first step is recognizing your risk for a fall. Of course, age plays a part, and your risk of falling increases as you age: 30 percent of people 65 and older fall each year, while 50 percent of people 80 and older do.

But age is only one piece of the puzzle. We use age to measure fall risk because it is an easy stand-in for a lot of other risk factors. You are more likely to fall if you have:

  • A history of falling
  • Trouble walking or mobility problems
  • Poor balance and muscle weakness
  • Poor eyesight
  • A cognitive impairment
  • A hazardous home
  • Multiple medications
  • Incontinence issues

Typically, falls are the result of a combination of two or more of these factors. For instance, if you have already fallen once and you have trouble walking, you are much more likely to fall again.

Some of these risk factors are fairly obvious. If you have bad eyesight, you might not see a tripping hazard in your home until it is too late. Muscle weakness or balance problems make it difficult to perform everyday activities, like getting into and out of a chair, or reaching for something in a high cabinet.

On the other hand, medications are a risk factor that many people do not think about. Certain drugs like blood pressure medicines, sedatives, antidepressants, or anti-anxiety medicines can make you more likely to fall.

That is especially true if you are taking multiple medications at once. They can combine to produce new or unexpected side effects. This is another reason it is important to talk to your doctor about all your medications. They can make sure the combinations are safe.

Incontinence, or trouble making it to the bathroom in time, is also a less obvious risk factor. It’s not really incontinence itself that is the issue. Instead, the problem is rushing to the bathroom, especially late at night. You’re more likely to trip and fall if you are in a rush.

As part of their STEADI program, the CDC prints a checklist for your risk for falling. If you score a 4 or higher on their checklist, you may be at a higher risk for falling.

How to Lower Your Risk for a Fall

If you know which risk factors apply to you, then you can take steps to address them. The most effective fall prevention programs cover multiple risks, from your home environment to building strength and confidence. You should address each factor for the most success.

Exercise: Improving Strength and Balance

Everyone can benefit from exercise, and that is especially true for seniors. Staying active can improve your balance, coordination, strength, and flexibility. That translates to fewer falls.

For people with a low-risk of falling (in other words, with fewer of those risk factors), daily moderate exercise can help. That could include:

  • 30 minutes a day of moderately intense walking
  • Group exercise classes
  • Sports like tennis or golf
  • Bike riding
  • Dance classes

Tai chi, a gentle form of exercise that focuses on graceful movement and balance, may also be very effective at preventing future falls.

People at a higher risk of falling will want a more structured exercise program that focuses on their individual weaknesses or problems. These programs will usually involve building functional strength and cover movements you use daily, like moving from sitting to standing, transferring your weight, or reaching. A physical or occupational therapist can help you create a program.

Regardless of what you choose, the key is to get moving and stay active. Any program that includes balance, strength training, and low-impact cardio will help.

Home Improvements: Removing Tripping Hazards

Staying at home will not keep you safe on its own. Home and environmental risk factors are involved in about half of falls. That’s not surprising when you consider how much time all of us spend at home.

There are many changes you can make if you want to stay in your home as long as possible. To prevent falls specifically, you’ll want to fix the main tripping hazards in your home. You should:

  • Secure loose rugs (or remove them altogether)
  • Move cords against walls and secure them there
  • Add no-slip strips to the stairs and bathroom
  • Use rubber, nonslip bathmats (never a towel or rug)
  • Make sure you can easily reach items you use often (and avoid using step stools)
  • Clean spills immediately
  • Throw away empty boxes, old newspapers, or other trash
  • Add nightlights to dark rooms or hallways

This list is just the start. There are many other things you can do to make your home safer. An occupational therapist can help you as well. They can perform an assessment of your home to spot hazards.

The Right Equipment: Walkers, Canes, and Sensible Shoes

Assistive devices can make it easier to get around, or to navigate your home. They include mobility aides like walkers or canes. Especially if you have an unsteady gait, such devices can help.

Assistive devices also include things in your environment. Railings are an obvious choice: ideally, you want secure railings on both sides of your stairs. In the bathroom, grab bars, a raised toilet seat, and a shower chair can all help to prevent falls.

But the most important, and the easiest, thing you can do is wear the right shoes. Avoid high heels, floppy slippers, flip flops, or shoes with slick soles. Any of these make a fall more likely. So can walking in your socks.

Instead, wear well-fitting shoes with a study heel and no-slip, rubber treads. Sneakers are usually a comfortable and sensible choice.

Talk to Your Doctor: A Full Health Screening

We already discussed medications above. Make sure you ask your doctor about the side effects and potential interactions of any medicine you take.

But your health screening should also include frequent eye exams and hearing checks. Poor hearing and eyesight are both risk factors that you can easily address ahead of time. Likewise, have your gait and muscle strength checked as well.

It can be tempting to not tell anyone when you fall. You may worry that you’ll seem frail, or you’ll be forced to move to a care facility. But it’s important to always tell your doctor about any falls, even if you don’t get hurt. That way, your doctor can help you prevent a more serious fall down the line.

Get Help You Need: Avoid Unnecessary Risks

Your doctor isn’t the only one who can help. At a certain point, you may need help with daily activities, or taking care of your home. Trying to do everything yourself can lead to overexertion and higher risks. Instead of trying to force your body to do something it no longer can, ask for help.

That help can come from family or friends, but you can also hire someone to help with certain jobs. A landscaper or housekeeper can help you maintain your home. Likewise, a home health aide or caregiver can help with daily tasks like bathing or cooking. In some cases, Medicaid will pay for your help.

Falls are Preventable, So Start Now

For seniors, falls are a real and serious risk. But, no one is destined to fall. If you take the necessary steps now, you can protect yourself before you fall. If you wait until after you fall, things may be even more difficult. You might be dealing with a serious injury by then.

Instead, be proactive. My Mobility Plan from the CDC is a great place to start. It includes a checklist for yourself, your home, and your neighborhood. Create your plan now and you can enjoy good health for years to come.

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Penn Asian Senior Services