By Dan Walters, PT, lead physical therapist at Nurses & Company
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of Americans 65 years or older suffer from a fall each year. While the physical and financial cost of a fall varies from person to person, the psychological affect can be truly devastating regardless of the severity of injury. One minor fall can instill a fear that results in limiting activities and socialization, which can lead to depression, isolation and physical decline.
September 23 is the National Council on Aging’s annual Falls Prevention Awareness Day. It is important that older adults know how to prevent tripping, stumbling and falling in and out of the home. Friends and family members also need to be aware of dangers and know how to encourage a loved one after a fall.
Why is falling common in older adults?
As we age, there are many variables that increase the chance of falling. Muscles throughout the body can become weak over time — especially for those who live a sedentary lifestyle — leading to a loss of fast twitch muscle fibers that assist with quick action response. Comorbidities like diabetes and heart disease can lead to mobility issues. Neuropathy in the feet or legs can make it difficult for an individual to sense an uneven floor. Vision also deteriorates, and being able to see well at night can become difficult.
There are also changes to the brain itself; the pathways that send messages from the brain to the limbs deteriorate and this leads to a lag in response time. In most cases, this means that an older adult will react more slowly than a younger person.
Also, certain medications can cause dizziness, fatigue and muscle weakness. Be sure to talk with a doctor or pharmacists about the risks before taking any new prescriptions or over-the-counter drugs.
What can someone do to prevent falls?
The best way to prevent falling is to stay active. The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” is very true for the human body. Many times, I’ll evaluate new residents at Twin Oaks Senior Living who are coming from their own home. These are individuals who have lost a significant amount of muscle mass and have very little endurance thanks to their sedentary lifestyle. Within a few weeks of living at a Twin Oaks campus, those people are socializing with other residents and having to walk more often. Their health is improving and that risk of falling is decreasing.
While family members want to protect their loved one, many times those good intensions can actually be harmful. If you want to protect your loved ones, be sure to evaluate their environment. Make sure that pathways in the home are clear and remove any extension cords or rugs that are in those walkways. Also, install nightlights or put timers on lamps throughout the home to illuminate pathways at night.
Many times, a family member will begin to do activities for their parents or grandparents as a way to keep them safe. They’ll say, “Don’t walk to the mailbox; you may fall. I can do it for you.” While well-meaning, this behavior can increases anxiety and lead to anti-social behavior. Suddenly, mom or dad is afraid to leave the house for fear of falling or having an accident. The act of suggestion is very powerful and we all need to be sure that we are enabling older adults to maintain their independence. If you’re worried about your loved ones falling, do those activities with them, not for them. Go on walks, enroll them in cardio strengthening activities and be sure to make time for social interactions.
What should do you after you’ve had a fall?
There is different advice for different injuries, but seeking medical treatment is the most important. Only a medical professional can tell you the severity of your injury. Even if the fall doesn’t seem serious, the soreness or stiffness that follows can be a problem that builds on itself. By not using that part of your body for a while, you may exasperate the issue. For those worried about muscle relaxers or pain medications, physical therapists can often treat soreness and stiffness without the use of medications.
After you’ve healed, consider light exercises to build up your muscle mass. Something as simple as varying your speed from fast to slow while walking around the neighborhood can help maintain the fast twitch muscle fibers that are so important in reaction time. I also tell people to practice standing up and sitting down on a hard chair (like a kitchen chair, not a sofa or recliner). This can help to build leg and core muscles. Simple balance exercises like standing on one leg can also help.
It’s important to change our habits and make adjustments to our environment as we age. Daily exercise, good sleep, a healthy diet and socialization, along with knowing how to mitigate dangers, can help us to have longer and healthier lives.
Dan Walters visits the residents at Twin Oaks at Heritage Pointe in Wentzville, MO almost daily to facilitate physical therapy activities. For more information about Nurse & Company, visit nursesandco.com.