Fear of falling, injury common for older adults

December 29, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

You might remember the plaintive cry of "Mrs. Fletcher" - "I've fallen and I can't get up" - in the 1990 television commercial for a medical service designed to summon emergency assistance by pushing a button on a wearable radio badge.

In the dramatized scene, the fictional senior citizen had fallen in her bathroom.

The line became part of popular culture - printed on T-shirts, and as the source of a big laugh for late-night television host Jay Leno when he returned to "The Tonight Show" on crutches after a motorcycle accident in 1991, according to Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia online at

There's nothing funny about falling - especially if you're a senior citizen.

It happens frequently - and with some dire outcomes. According to information on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at



-- Each year, more than one-third of adults ages 65 years and older fall.

-- Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions for trauma among older adults.

-- More than 1.6 million seniors were treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries, and 373,000 were hospitalized in 2001.

-- The chance that a fall will cause a severe injury requiring hospitalization greatly increases with age.

Ita Kavanagh is a registered nurse who works with the Washington County Commission on Aging's medication management program. Her duties include presenting information about preventing falls to senior citizens when they gather at the county's seven nutrition sites.

"A lot of people fall," Kavanagh says.

Fear of falling is the No. 1 fear among seniors, she adds. Although its effects might not be as dramatic as a broken bone, that fear can have an impact on a person's life. Afraid to venture from home, an older person becomes isolated. Socialization decreases, Kavanagh says.

Several factors - strength, balance, vision and physical problems - increase seniors' risk of falling. They need to be evaluated regularly.

Exercise is important to maintain strength, flexibility and a sense of balance and coordination, Kavanagh says.

The National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging is a source of information about exercise online at Publications may be ordered by calling 1-800-222-2225.

Medications - for pain, sleeping, blood pressure - are part of the problem, Kavanagh says.

It's important to review medications, she adds.

Paying attention to details can help to prevent falls.

-- Sturdy shoes are good, and Kavanagh says that thin soles permit the wearer to feel an uneven floor surface.

-- Keep the bed against a wall.

-- Keep phone and television remote control near the bed.

-- Clear house of clutter.

-- Investigate helpful aides, such as anti-tipping devices on wheelchairs and properly fitting canes.

Reduce dangers of falling at home

Ita Kavanagh shares an elder home safety checklist during programs she presents at Washington County Commission on Aging's seven nutrition sites.

Falls are most common in three areas of the home - stairs, kitchen and bathroom.

Safety precautions include:

-- Adequate lighting - especially in closets, basement, stairs. One hundred-watt bulbs are recommended.

-- Use night lights in halls between bedroom and bathroom.

-- Rugs, banisters and doorways should be darker than or contrast with walls.

-- Mark the edge of steps with a piece of yellow, orange or red tape.

-- Mark sharp corners with bright reflector tape.

-- Use waterproof tape to outline edge and bottom of bathtub.

-- Place decals on large glass doors.

-- Blinds, sheer curtains, matte finishes on floors and furniture can prevent glare.

-- Remove clutter - extension cords, frayed throw rugs and rugs that slip.

-- Store frequently used objects in easy-to-reach cabinets.

-- Mount grab bars into studs in walls around tub and toilet.

-- If necessary, install a raised toilet seat and use a shower seat and hand-held shower.

-- Carpet bathrooms to prevent slipping.

-- Fix or remove uneven ground, cracked pavement, fallen tree branches, thorny bushes.

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