Back in the late 1980s, we were alerted to the problem of falls in the home in a unique way. A company called Life Call began marketing a 24-hour monitoring service for elders living alone. If the elder needed assistance and couldn't reach a phone, he or she could simply press a button on a pendant worn around the neck and instantly connect to a dispatcher, who would call emergency services. TV commercials featured an elderly woman who had fallen in the bathroom, who tells the dispatcher, "I've fallen, and I can't get up." That line became a catchphrase and turned up in everything from TV shows to comedy routines. In 2007, it was ranked by USA Today as the most memorable marketing campaign of the past 25 years [source: USA Today].
Although the commercial was funny, falls in the home are anything but. They're the leading cause of injury-related death in people age 65 and older. In 2005, about 2 million elders visited an emergency room for fall-related injuries, and 20 to 30 percent of them suffered severe injuries that can greatly decrease mobility or even shorten lives, such as broken hips or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) [source: CDC].
We often associate the risk of falling with people who have mobility problems, but that's not necessarily the case. The first way to prevent falls has nothing to do with using a walker or a cane.
Review Medications and Health Conditions
The elderly person with a huge pillbox is a stereotype for a reason -- elders do tend to be on more medications, and many drugs can contribute to the risk of falling. Dizziness is a potential side effect in a wide variety of prescription medications, including those for common conditions like overactive bladder and chronic pain. Diuretics prescribed for high blood pressure can cause leg cramps, which can wreak havoc in a person who already has compromised mobility.
Side effects aren't the only medication concern to take into account -- all types of medications (we're talking about vitamins and herbal supplements, too) have the potential to interact with each other in a negative way. Everything that you take, even if it's something seemingly harmless like an aspirin, should be discussed with a doctor. We all react differently to medications, and reactions can change over time.
It's also important to discuss all health conditions and concerns. You may not immediately associate a problem like urinary incontinence with falling, but a 2000 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that there's an increased risk of falls among women who experience it. More obvious conditions that can increase the risk are associated with poor vision problems, such as cataracts or glaucoma. Decreasing the risk may be as simple as getting a stronger glasses prescription. Finally, your doctor can assess your balance and gait, or the way that you walk, which can indicate underlying problems.
Now that the doctor's visit is out of the way, let's look at potential fall-inducing culprits around the home.
Take a Look at Your Home
It's time to look at your home with a fresh perspective -- what might be a hazard and increase your risk of falling?
Most of us think nothing of skirting around things when navigating a room, but think of how dangerous those out-of-place objects can be if you're walking around in dim light or simply aren't as agile as you once were. Examine all of the typical traffic patterns through the house and move obstacles such as extension cords or ottomans. Rugs can also pose a problem; you could make them more stable by getting a nonslip pad to go underneath them or tack them to the floor. If you have loose carpet or other flooring, get it repaired immediately.
It's best to keep essential items on lower shelves and cabinets -- get assistance if you need to reach items that are higher up. If you must get something on a higher shelf, remember to use a sturdy step stool with nonskip steps and a handle, not a chair or other improvised stool.
Adequate lighting is important, too. Light switches or lamps should be located close to the entrances of rooms and by bedsides so that you don't have to cross a room in the dark. Consider placing night-lights in dimly lit areas, and install lights along stairways so that each tread is visible.
If these tips aren't enough, you can also buy aids specifically designed to help prevent falls. Check them out next.
Use Fall Prevention Aids
Just moving items out of the way and making minor adjustments to your home might not be enough to prevent a fall.
If your doctor or physical therapist has suggested that you begin using a mobility aid such as a cane or walker, get one, learn how to use it correctly and use it all the time. Although at first you may dislike the idea of using one, it can mean the difference between getting around your home safely and ending up injured due to a fall.
The bathroom might be the most hazardous place as far as falls are concerned. Bathing can be made safer by installing hand bars and nonslip mats, or nonskid seats that allow you to sit while showering. There are also raised toilet seats with handrails and grabber bars that can assist with getting up and down.
If you need to get to hard-to-reach items, consider buying a grabber or pick-up tool. You can use it for everything from reaching above your head to picking something up off the floor. These tools come in different lengths for different uses so that you don't have to wait to ask for help or risk falling while bending over or using a stool.
Unless you regularly wear platform shoes or spike heels, you may not think much about your footwear. Next, see how new shoes can help prevent a fall.
Go Shoe Shopping
When we buy shoes, it's often all about how the shoe looks. How it feels and performs tends to take a distant backseat. Sometimes function is more important than fashion, though. If you have mobility issues or are concerned about preventing a fall, choosing the right shoe should be more about how they fit and how well you can walk in them.
The first step is to have your feet measured. Just because you've always worn a 9 wide doesn't mean that you still do. Your size can change over time, especially if you have health conditions that can cause foot problems such as diabetes or arthritis. It's also important to get a diagnosis for conditions specific to the foot, such as plantar fasciitis, and buy the right shoes or inserts. If you're not placing equal weight on all parts of your feet because you're in pain, you may stumble and fall.
Many elders like slip-on shoes because they're usually comfortable and easy to put on, but the foot can slide around when you walk and potentially trip you up. It's better to go with a sturdy shoe that has laces and a firm, nonslip sole. Consider getting a shoehorn with an extended handle to help put your shoes on. You can also get spring laces, which stay tight and don't need tying, or shoes with Velcro fasteners.
So far, all of our ways to prevent a fall have to do with potentially modifying medications or other things that you use on a daily basis. Next, learn how exercise can help prevent a fall.
Starting up an exercise program may seem counterintuitive at first if you're worried about falling. Won't a lot of moving around increase your risk? Many elders avoid exercising because of this concern, but the opposite is true. Staying sedentary actually increases your risk, because it can lower your stamina, balance, flexibility and coordination. Even if you're already exercising regularly, you may not be doing all you can to help prevent falls. To build stamina, try low-impact cardio exercises like walking or swimming.
It's also important to incorporate exercises that require precision and concentration, such as yoga and tai chi. There are many different types of yoga for people of all ages and fitness levels, so it doesn't matter if you're not very flexible. Tai chi has also become popular with elders as a way to strengthen and increase balance. Although it's a martial art, tai chi uses graceful, slow movements. You can find programs specifically designed for first-timers, senior citizens and people with limited mobility.
Still worried? Discuss your fears with your doctor. He or she can recommend an exercise program, or a physical therapist that can design a program just for your needs. The same is true if you have mobility issues. You may be limited in what you can do to strengthen your legs or improve your balance, for example, but you can build your arm strength to help support your weight.
For more on aging and health, try the HowStuffWorks articles listed on the next page.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Brown, J.S., et al. "Urinary incontinence: Does it increase risk for falls and fractures?" Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 2000, vol. 48, no. 7.
- CDC. "Falls Among Older Adults: An Overview." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC). January 19, 2009.http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/duip/preventadultfalls.htm
- Chang, JuJu and Jim Bun. "Prevent Falls for the Elderly." Good Morning America. November 4, 2008.http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/OnCall/Story?id=6173302&page=1
- Fuller, George F. "Falls in the Elderly." American Family Physician. April 1, 2000.http://www.aafp.org/afp/20000401/2159.html
- Korc, Beatriz and Stephanie Stapleton. "Find the reason, then prevent the fall." American Medical News. Dec. 22, 2008.http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2008/12/22/hlca1222.htm
- Mayo Clinic Staff. "Fall prevention: 6 ways to reduce your falling risk." Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). July 12, 2008.http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fall-prevention/HQ00657
- Tremblay, K.R. and C.E. Barber. "Preventing Falls in the Elderly." Colorado State University Extension. December 2005.http://www.ext.colostate.edu/Pubs/consumer/10242.html
- TherapyTimes. "Tai Chi reduces falls in elderly." Valley Forge Publishing Group. 2009.http://www.therapytimes.com/content=5401J64C48768C841
- USA Today. "Ads we can't get out of our heads." USA Today. July 22, 2007.http://www.usatoday.com/money/top25-ads.htm