The statistics are alarming: falls are the leading cause of death for those 65 and over and the primary reason for 40% of nursing home admissions. In fact, one in three people over 65 will experience a fall this year, twice that for those over 75. Falls can result in hip fractures, broken bones, or head injuries. Even without serious injury, falls can lead to depression and fear, causing people to ultimately limit their physical activity, which in turn actually increases the likelihood of future falls.
The good news? Most falls are preventable. Yet, besides heeding the advice of concerned family and physicians repeating "Don't fall!", you need a more substantial action plan. Here are some things you can do now to reduce your risk of falling:
1: Walk! Walk! Walk!: Inactivity and aging can have a negative effect on balance, flexibility, and strength, so make it a point to include walking and daily exercise as your first line of defense.
2. Choose the proper footwear: While slip-ons are easy, they are often too easy to slip-off as you are turning around, backing up, or on the stairs. Make sure your footwear has a closed back. Also choose footwear that has a good tread and fits properly, is lightweight, and either flat or a very slight wedge.
3. Remove those throw rugs: Yes, all of them! Even with a nonslip backing, throw rugs pose a tripping hazard, as your foot, the leg of a walker or cane can "catch" on the edge. Dry off before getting out of the tub or shower and slip your feet into a nonskid slipper (with a back) instead of stepping onto a throw rug. It may have been there for years without a problem, but it just takes one misstep to trip and fall. It's not worth the risk. Larger area rugs can pose a similar problem. If you opt to take the risk and not remove them, at the very least, secure all the edges with double sided carpet tape. And for carpeted stairs, make sure the carpet is well secured to each step.
4. Declutter and downsize: Make sure there is adequate space to move freely in and through each room. This may mean removing or rearranging excess furniture and limiting the items atop tables. Special pieces may be safer in shelves, display cabinets, or mounted on walls. Eliminate excess and unused items from kitchen cabinets and closets so you can retrieve items easily.
5. Improve lighting: As our eyes age, visual acuity and depth perception can become more limited. It also takes longer for our eyes to adjust to changes in light and darkness. Open shades and curtains to increase the natural light in your home, and maximize the lighting and wattage in light bulbs to maintain a steady level of brightness and minimize glare. At night, have easy access to turn on a light before getting out of bed, and use night lights or motion sensor lights to light a path to the bathroom.
6. Grab bars are the new seat belts! Everyone should use them!: Don't wait to have a fall before installing grab bars. Install grab bars in the shower/tub and near the toilet to improve bathroom safety. There are many decorative grab bars to match your decor. Whichever you choose, be sure that they are installed properly and securely.
7. Keep up with home maintenance: Minor problems can become major problems if left neglected. Loose rails or stairs can impose an obvious threat, but so can a door that sticks, a broken pull handle, a leaky pipe, or untrimmed shrubbery invading a walkway. Avoid climbing on ladders or chairs to change a light bulb or dust the cobwebs. Consider asking a friend or family member for help with simple jobs or line up a handyman service, cleaning service, or lawn service if you can no longer attend to those tasks safely.
8: See your doctor: There's a lot of power in prevention. Work with your doctor to manage chronic conditions and to address new concerns before they become major issues. If you are needing to hold the walls or furniture as you walk around the house, or having trouble getting up from the toilet, a physical therapy referral can be helpful to improve balance and strength. Get your vision and hearing checked regularly. And don't neglect your feet, especially if you're diabetic. See your podiatrist for nail and foot care and address any problems early.
9. Review your medications: Some medications can have side effects of dizziness or sudden changes in blood pressure if you get up too quickly. Others can be disorienting or make you feel "loopy", like certain pain meds, increasing your risk for falling. Consult with your doctor to investigate alternatives, discuss drug interactions, avoid over medicating, and to prevent taking multiple medications for the same problem but prescribed by different physicians. Are you taking medication that is no longer necessary or effective? You should always take medication exactly as it is prescribed, and let your doctor know if you aren't. Don't forget to include any over-the-counter medicines or supplements you may also be taking.
10. Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Pay attention to getting proper nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise. Social isolation often leads to depression, and is as comparable a risk factor for early death in older adults as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's important to stay connected with friends and family and remain active in your community. Always avoid smoking and alcohol, and seek help if you need to quit.