Each year, one out of three seniors will take a tumble, with 20 percent of falls resulting in serious injuries. In 2010, falls sent 2.3 million seniors to the emergency room, costing a whopping $30 billion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Falls are also responsible for most bone fractures in older adults and are the number one cause of traumatic brain injury.
But one of the biggest impacts of falling can’t be detected on an X-ray: The fear of falling again. Deep concerns about falling can seriously impact seniors’ ability to live independently, since many react to this fear by restricting their own movement—which reduces exercise, cardiovascular health and even social interaction, the CDC notes.
For others, the fear will prompt them to adopt an assistive device (such as a walker or cane) that is more about psychological comfort than medical necessity, further weakening the limbs.
Teaching seniors ways to combat their fear of falling can give them a sense of control and confidence while keeping them active and social.
LEARN WHAT SCARES THEM
Fear is psychological, but the reasons for fear are often grounded in reality. Does that hallway seem too dark to them? Does even a brightly lit staircase fill them with trepidation? A quick examination of the living environment can uncover plenty of hazards that can contribute to fear of falling. Removing loose throw rugs, adding handrails or brighter lighting, and making things easier to reach can empower seniors who are aging in place. AgeInPlace.com offers suggestions for remodeling specific rooms in the home to give seniors the ability to move around with confidence.
The fear of falling also can be rooted in the loss of flexibility during aging and the inability to rely on one’s sense of balance. The more sudden the musculoskeletal degradations are, the more frustrating it can be—especially for those who are experiencing the dramatic changes in body control that occur after a stroke.
Since falls also can be predictors of the onset or worsening of progressive diseases such as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s, the fear of falling can be linked to deeper personal worries about worsening health among those who live with such diseases.
KEEP THEM BALANCED
Did you know..?
More than 80,000 people are injured each year by tripping over a pet, says the CDC. Brightly-colored collars with attached bells can help seniors keep track of Fido and Kitty.
Source: CDC MMWR, 2009
Falls prevention rests greatly on a person’s ability to remain in balance regardless of the ground surface, as well as the important ability to mitigate a slight stumble without ending up on the floor. Weight-bearing limbs need to stay fit, and consistent exercise is especially important for those who have osteoporosis. Encouraging seniors to exercise in groups or with a friend can help create the sense of an activity rather than a “chore.” Even low-impact exercise can help promote stability and a steady gait. Dancing, Tai Chi, toe-touching and yoga can all help keep the body’s sense of balance in shape.
In some cases, something beyond fitness may be contributing to a lack of balance. Untreated vision problems, such as cataracts and glaucoma, can have a serious impact on balance. So can medications that lower blood-pressure or aid in sleep: If the senior has been prescribed a sleep medication, see if the falls correlate to times when the medication is taken.
HELP THEM TAKE CHARGE
Many recommend that seniors keep a journal or list of when falls occur and what caused them, notes a New York Times article. Patterns may emerge that point to specific circumstances—dim lighting, for example—that can be modified easily.
For many, especially those who are aging in place, the real fear is falling while alone and not having a way to get help. The pervasiveness of cell phones has been a boon to seniors, who can carry the mobile phone wherever they go. Wearable emergency call-buttons also are becoming much more prevalent on today’s market and can provide seniors with the confidence to live independently.
All seniors can benefit from an examination of their fear of falling. Engaging them in an examination of their fears can empower them to take action within their own living spaces, to invest in maintaining their fitness and balance and, most of all, to stay in the active world of mobility.