Did you know that every 35 minutes an older American dies from a traumatic brain and head injury precipitated by a fall? In fact, each year, 2 million American seniors are taken to hospital emergency rooms for fall-related injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “More than one-third of adults age 65 and older fall at least once each year.”
The good news is that falls are not an inevitable part of aging. There are things you can do to help prevent a fall. This article will explore some simple, common-sense steps you can take to keep you safe. But first, let’s try to understand why seniors fall in the first place, so we may take actions to protect our aging loved ones.
Physical changes associated with aging can contribute to an increased fall risk, including arthritis, irregular heartbeat, reduced visual abilities, slower reflexes, urinary and bladder dysfunction and weaker muscle strength and tone. Diuretics and muscle relaxants may also increase your risk of falling.
Older adults who take medications can have side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. This can make falling more likely. Have your doctor or pharmacist review all medications so you can help reduce the chance of risky side effects and drug interactions. However, you should not discontinue these medications without a doctor’s supervision.
Also, seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease or a related illness may face a greater risk of falling — as well as realize more severe complications from tumbles — largely due to altered mobility (i.e., balance, coordination) and cognition (i.e, judgment, spatial perception). But there are some simple strategies you can employ to help reduce the risk of a fall.
The Mayo Clinic provides a list of “Simple tips to prevent falls” on its website (www.mayoclinic.org). One tip is to wear sensible shoes as part of your fall-prevention plan. High heels, floppy slippers and shoes with slick soles can make you slip, stumble and fall. So can walking in your stocking feet. Instead, wear properly fitting, sturdy shoes with nonskid soles. Sensible shoes may also reduce joint pain.
Another tip is to make your home safer by clearing out the clutter. Excess clutter, e.g., boxes, newspapers, electrical cords and phone cords, should be removed from walkways as these items can increase the likelihood that someone will trip. Get in the habit of putting things away immediately. Remove excess furniture and arrange tables, chairs, etc., so that pathways are clear. Spring cleaning any time of the year can be a great opportunity to declutter space.
AARP has made fall prevention a priority. One key to reducing the risk of serious falls is exercise. “Several studies show that exercise and activity that help in strengthening, flexibility and balance can make a significant difference in minimizing one’s chance of falling,” said Jennie Chin Hansen, past president of AARP.
Results from a Harvard Health study indicated that Tai Chi helped reduce falls in seniors by up to 45 percent (Harvard Health Blog, Aug. 23, 2012). Tai Chi helps improve balance because it targets all the physical components needed to stay upright — leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and re-flexes — all of which tend to decline with age.
Contact your local senior center and ask whether it offers Tai Chi or any other exercise program geared toward improving balance. However, even if you can’t make it to the Tai Chi class at your local senior center, general exercise at home to improve balance can be done at virtually no or very low cost, on our own or with our friends.
Try these balance exercises on an every-other-day basis to reduce fall risks:
- Stand behind a chair or other sturdy piece of furniture you can hold onto and practice standing on one leg at a time. Hold this position for five seconds and increase the time period as you are able. Closing your eyes while you’re balancing will increase the difficulty.
- Standing behind a sturdy piece of furniture, lift your leg to the side, as high as you’re able. Repeat 10 times with one leg, then switch to the other leg. Repeat this exercise, raising your leg behind you instead of beside you on both sides.
- Practice walking from heel to toe. You may need to hold your arms out to your sides or use an assistive device to steady yourself. Walking in this manner for even short distances can help.
- The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America suggests that you have a notification system in place, especially when seniors live alone. Consider medical alert products that notify a call center in the case of a fall or other emergency.
Finally, make sure you have valid, up-to-date Durable Power of Attorneys in place just in case an accident or fall results in the need for long-term care. As I tell my elderly clients, “It’s always better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”
Judd Matsunaga is the founding attorney of Elder Law Services of California, a law firm that specializes in Medi-Cal Planning, Estate Planning and Probate. He can be contacted at (310) 348-2995 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Pacific Citizen or JACL. The information presented does not constitute legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such.