As the weather cools in the fall and with winter right around the corner it’s a great time to think about a different kind of fall – actually preventing older adults from falling down and getting hurt- either in their home or unfamiliar and slippery outside locations.
Every 13 seconds, an older adult is seen in an emergency department for a falls-related injury. According to the National Council on Aging, one in four Americans over the age of 65 falls each year and every 20 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
In Utah, falls are the leading cause of non-fatal injury-related hospital admissions among those age 65+.
Also, more than half of Utahns aged 65+ who were hospitalized due to a fall were discharged to residential care or a rehabilitation facility.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox has also declared this week, Falls Prevention Awareness Week in hopes of shining a light on the largely preventable community health problem.
In the governor’s declaration he points out one out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or head injury and falls can lead to depression, loss of mobility and loss of functional independence.
“Falls can cause hip fractures or head trauma, both of which can increase the risk of early disability or death for older adults,” said Spencer Proctor, M.D., Intermountain Healthcare emergency medicine physician and emergency department chair at Intermountain Riverton Hospital. “The good news is that many falls among older adults can be prevented with some planning and safety in mind.”
Marilyn Burningham, 76, knows first-hand the importance of keeping good balance. She was walking into her South Jordan home July 24, 2021 and leaned up against a door she thought was closed. It was open and she fell down five stairs. She went to Intermountain Riverton Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with a head bleed and transferred her to Intermountain Medical Center.
“I’m super active and I just needed to slow down,” said Burningham. “I was lucky! I didn’t have to undergo any surgeries and I got to go home.”
Burningham has now added stair railings to her home to keep her safe and give her peace of mind.
Dr. Proctor offers these tips to help keep senior adults on their feet and moving forward safely:
• Exercise regularly. Get up and move! Do exercises that improve your balance and make your legs stronger. Building muscles and keeping ligaments lean and strong helps you walk more confidently.
• Keep your home safe. Remove tripping hazards, such as rugs and toys, increase lighting in low-light areas, make stairs safe by installing handrails and non-slip surfaces and removing obstacles, and install grab bars in areas of uneven flooring and the bathroom. And be careful around small pets, one of the most common trip hazards for senior adults.
• Talk to your family members or others close to you. Ask them to help you take simple steps to stay safe. An unsafe home increases the risk for falling for everyone, from the very young to the very old.
· Take extra precautions in unfamiliar environments. When visiting family members make sure their homes are also safe, by removing tripping hazards and adding increased lighting.
• Get your vision and hearing checked every year and update your eyeglasses. Your eyes and ears are key to keeping you on your feet.
• It’s safest to have uniform lighting in a room. Add lighting to dark areas. Hang lightweight curtains or shades to reduce glare.
• Paint a contrasting color on the top edge of all steps so you can see the stairs better. For example, use a light color paint on dark wood.
• Regularly review your medications with your doctor and/or pharmacist. This includes medications prescribed by all of your healthcare providers and any over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, supplements, or herbs you are using. Some combinations may cause side effects that increase dizziness or your risk of falling. Take your medications only as prescribed.
• Ask your doctor to assess your risk for falling. And make sure to share your history of any recent falls.
• Get up slowly after you sit or lie down. Wear shoes both inside and outside the house. Avoid going barefoot or just wearing socks or slippers.
• Falls Prevention Kit. Intermountain Healthcare emergency rooms are equipped with kits for those 65 years and older. The kit contains - non-slip socks, night lights, information on Stepping On fall prevention courses, and My Mobility Plan from the CDC which has a step-by-step guide on things to do in your home to prevent falls.
• Take a Stepping On prevention course, Strength and Balance class or Tai Chi for Arthritis /Health class. The Utah Department of Health is offering free virtual classes. Tai Chi for Arthritis/Health classes incorporates exercises that improve muscular strength, flexibility and fitness. The Tai Chi for Arthritis/Health program also focuses on weight transference, which improves balance and prevents falls. You can sign up at https://livingwell.utah.gov.
• The Utah Falls Prevention Alliance has even more information at: https://ucoa.utah.edu/fpa/