Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for older adults. But they’re not inevitable! Follow these simple guidelines to stay safe and active.
Falls are all too common among older adults. In fact, one in four Americans ages 65 and older will fall this year, according to the National Council on Aging. That’s a big concern, because bouncing back isn’t always so simple.
Falls are the top cause of injuries in seniors, including head injuries, fractures, and even spinal cord injuries, warns Cynthia J. Brown, M.D., director of the division of gerontology, geriatrics, and palliative care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
If you’re concerned about falls or risk factors that affect your mobility, the first step is to talk with your doctor. “Ideally, your doctors should ask at least once a year about falls,” Dr. Brown says. “But if they don’t, let them know if you have fallen. They can watch you walk and check to see how steady you are, while also thinking about your medications and other factors that might contribute to falls. If they don’t know you have experienced a fall, they can’t help you.”
In addition to maintaining an open dialogue with your doctor, there are some simple steps you can take to safeguard your home and reduce your risk of falls on the go.
Step #1: Identify the Top Home Hazards
While a fall can happen anywhere, certain places invite more danger. Beware the bathroom. “I ask my patients to tell me one soft place they can land in their bathroom if they fall,” Dr. Brown says. “All have answered that there aren’t any.” Dr. Brown recommends installing grab bars in the shower or beside the toilet. It’s also smart to use a nonslip mat in the shower.
Stairs are another place where a fall can lead to a significant injury. Make sure you install handrails on both sides of any staircase—and use them even if you don’t think you need to, Dr. Brown says.
Step #2: Take a Walking Tour
“In our fall prevention clinic at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, we encourage our patients to walk through their homes looking for hazards,” Dr. Brown says. Answer these questions:
- Are the pathways clear?
- Is there room for you and, if you have one, an ambulatory device like a cane or walker?
- Are there loose rugs you can trip over?
- Is the lighting bright enough to allow you to see any hazards clearly?
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great checklist that older adults and their families can use to ensure the home environment is safe,” Dr. Brown says. Find it here.
Step #3: Ask for Safeguarding Help
For ambulatory devices, Medicare Part B can help cover the cost, Dr. Brown says. If you require assistance installing grab bars, railings, or other safety guards, check with local community or religious organizations, she suggests.
Step #4: Give Yourself a Steady Foundation
Studies show that footwear can make a difference in avoiding falls, Dr. Brown says. “Shoes with good support, low heels, and a back—no slip-ons—are best.”
Step #5: Improve Your Strength, Balance, and Flexibility
“Staying strong is critical, since people who are weak are four times as likely to fall as people who are strong,” Dr. Brown says. “Simple exercises, like chair stands [trying to stand from a chair without using your arms], can help build your leg muscles.”
Can’t stand all the way up? Just go up as much as you can—you’ll still strengthen your legs, hips, and core. Watch the video below and check out this step-by-step guide to squats and chair stands.
Balance and flexibility are also important. A number of studies have shown that tai chi is beneficial in those areas, she says. Yoga and stability-focused classes can also help. Look for classes offered in your community or at your gym. (Be sure to check your eligibility for free access to gyms and fitness classes through SilverSneakers. Already a member? Find a location near you.)
If needed, your doctor can refer you to a physical therapist who can teach you an exercise routine to do in your home, Dr. Brown adds.
Step #6: Don’t Live in Fear
“After a fall, many people develop a fear of falling,” Dr. Brown says. “This makes them much more cautious, to the point that they may restrict their activities for fear of having another fall.” While being cautious is often good, fear can interfere with your lifestyle. Don’t let it!
“Gaining confidence and improving your balance through exercise can help,” Dr. Brown says. “Many people also find that having a cane or walker makes them feel more secure, and that they are more independent and adventurous with the assistive device.”
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