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Help before the fall

Falling might have more consequences than a bruised ego

August 21, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • Experts say prevention is key when it comes to keeping seniors from falling.
Photo illustration by Kevin G. Gilbert,

It might make for good laughs on a television sitcom, but to millions of older adults, falling is no joke.

One mishap can alter a person's life, resulting in surgery, disability or even death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every 18 seconds, a person 65 years of age or older is in the emergency room because of a fall.

Every 35 minutes, someone in that same age group dies from falling injuries.

The center also reports that nearly one-half of older Americans who incur a serious injury never fully recover and many lose their ability to function independently for the rest of their lives.

The problem could be even more pressing. A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that falling injuries are on the rise.

In Washington County, it's the biggest injury concern, said Mary McPherson, Adult Evaluation and Review Services coordinator with the Washington County Health Department.

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Citing statistics from 2006, McPherson said of the 4,089 persons who were treated at the Washington County Hospital's emergency room, 873 were 65 years of age and older.

"The concerns are legitimate and continue even after the person has recovered from their injuries," McPherson said.

"What happens when people fall is that they often become afraid of falling again," she said. "So they take the safe route and sit, which is not good for the leg muscles. The less strength you have, the more you want to sit."

You can't always prevent falling, McPherson said. But you can reduce the chances.

Common sense dictates that falling accidents are the result of household hazards, such as a slippery bathtub or cluttered floors.

McPherson recommends doing a home assessment and making changes that will improve safety.

"Taking a few minutes to improve your home could prevent a fall and disability," she said. "None of us wants to have to go to a nursing home, which happens when we can no longer function independently. No one sees that as a positive."

While hazards often exist around the house that can contribute to falling, McPherson said a person's health can also contribute to falls and injuries.

Weak leg muscles, poor vision and some medications that compromise balance might put older people at risk for falling. It's important to review your medicines with your health care provider and also to have your eyes checked by a professional at least once a year. Outdated glasses and conditions like glaucoma or cataracts can limit your vision and increase your chances of falling.

According to The National Council on Aging, one of the best steps you can take to prevent falling is to begin a regular exercise program. Exercises that improve balance and coordination are the most helpful.

Lack of exercise leads to weakness, the council reports. But first talk with your doctor about the best physical exercise for you.

The council also suggests wearing shoes that are easy to walk in and give good support and avoiding shoes with slippery soles and those with high heels. Also avoid walking around the house in your stocking feet.

The council also stresses not to be negligent about using a cane or walker, if either has been recommended by your health care professional. They are important devices that help you maintain your balance.

McPherson said the Washington County Health Department offers programs at senior sites, including Seniors in Motion, which promote the importance of exercise, good nutrition and ways to build strength that can help prevent the devastation often caused by falls.

In addition, she said, the Health Department will offer a program in the near future that is geared to helping people with concerns about falling.

Called "A Matter of Balance," the program will utilize volunteer coaches to teach eight two-hour sessions.

The classes, she said, will help participants learn to view falls and fear of falling as controllable; set realistic goals for increasing activity; change their environment to reduce fall risk factors; and promote exercise to increase strength and balance.

The program will be designed to benefit anyone concerned about falls or who has sustained a fall in the past, as well as people interested in improving flexibility, balance and strength. Participants should be age 60 or older, ambulatory and able to problem-solve.

McPherson said September is National Falls Prevention Awareness Month.

"I can't think of a better time to think about ways to make your life safer," she said.




Safety first



To make your home safer, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following tips:

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