You know that expression “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?” It’s funny (although only marginally so and probably only if you have had a few drinks or too little sleep) for someone in their 20s and 30s. But the reason the expression is part of our popular culture is because of some really bad ads in the 1980s in which a woman dramatically falls and uses her medical alert pendant to call for help. The cause of humor for the younger set is that a fall, even a serious fall, generally means only a slight injury and more to their pride than to their bodies so the risks of falls as seen from their perspective are overly dramatized. But as our bodies age and our balance and strength begins to fade, the ability to recover from a fall also begins to fade.
Almost 50 percent of falls require help to get up even if no injuries result from the fall. Many falls are like the one my neighbor, Deloris had when she forgot to set the lock on her wheelchair and fell out of her chair one day. Her husband was home but as he’s in his 90s, suffers from Parkinson’s and frail himself, he was unable to get Deloris off the floor and back in her chair on his own. In Deloris’ case, she was angry with herself for falling but otherwise fine but if she had been alone, the story could have been a lot more serious. The same fall that would have caused an unsightly bruise or stiffness in a younger person can result in serious injury or even death for an older adult. For older adults, a non-injurious fall can result in death if the victim is unable to get up off the ground and lies on the floor for more than 12 hours.
In the United States, falls are the most common cause of hospital admissions for older adults-amounting to some 2.3 million in 2010, five times more likely than any other cause, and falls are the leading cause of death from injury.
Medications can complicate the issue. Not only can they sometimes be the cause of the fall but they can also aggravate the situation. For instance, blood thinners that are frequently used for people with heart issues can mean that even a small bleeding injury such as a cut will bleed profusely when the body becomes unable to form a clot.
Seniors also recover slower or not at all psychologically. The Royal Voluntary Service in Great Britain found that fear of falling prevents 225,000 people over the age of 75 from leaving their own homes, shrinking their confidence in their ability to live independently and virtually making them prisoners in their own homes even if the fall that caused the problem never resulted in injury. Ninety percent of falls that do not result in injury have a detrimental impact on health and well-being while as many as 50 percent of older people who have fallen report that fear of another fall caused them to lose confidence.
You probably know someone who had a fall and as a result has died or had serious medical issues as a result. Falls are so common in the senior population that 35 percent of seniors have fallen in the last two years. That number increases to 32 percent of those who live alone have fallen in the last year. Yet, despite that, more than a third do not inform their doctor about their falls.
According to the World Health Organization, falls “engender considerable mortality, morbidity and suffering for older people and their families, and incur social costs due to hospital and nursing home admissions (falls are recorded as a contributing factor in 40 percent of admissions to nursing homes according to the World Health Organization).”
The good news is that falls are largely preventable and often require fairly minimal efforts. For instance, many communities offer fall prevention classes and can usually be accessed by contacting your county’s Aging & Disability program.
To reduce your fall risk factors, Seattle Pacific University recommends:
Start a regular exercise program
Exercise is the single most important change you can make to reduce your chance of falling by improving your cardiovascular function, strength, balance and walking ability. In a 2004 World Health Organization study, scientists found that after the age of 30, individuals see a decline in strength and endurance by 10 percent per decade eventually affecting our ability to perform activities of daily living. If you have not exercised for a long time and have any health issues you should see your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Make your home safer
- Keep walking areas clear of clutter
- Use a night light
- Improve lighting
- Remove area rubs
- Use a non-slip mat in the bath tub
- Always wear shoes with non-slip soles both inside and outside the home
- Have bannisters on both sides of stairs and grab bars around toilets and showers
Go over your medications with your doctor or pharmacist
Understand the side effects of your medication, particularly if you take four or more medications. Medications can make you dizzy or drowsy and increase your chances of falling.
Get your vision checked
Poor vision can increase your risk factors. Get your eyes checked at least every two years or more frequently if you have any eye problems.
A fall, even one that only embarrasses rather than injures is serious. Keep track of your falls so that your doctor can determine any outside causes. If your falls happen in your home, consider having an assessment of your home done by someone from a company such as Gentiva. They can make recommendations to help you live more comfortably and more safely so you can continue to live at home.