Successful Aging: How to prevent falls at home and outside
Last week’s column addressed S.M.’s concerns about mitigating the risks of falling given that several of her friends have fallen with serious medical consequences. We addressed how to keep our bodies fit to counteract normal age-related changes that can affect balance.
Now it’s time to turn to our environments. Are they waiting for a fall to happen or are our environments designed and arranged to keep us safe? And what happens if we fall in our homes?
Several systems are involved in keeping our balance: visual, proprioceptive and vestibular systems. Visual is how well we see. Proprioceptive refers to our orientation to space with receptors in our muscles, joints and tendons helping sense body position and movement. The vestibular system is in our inner ear and provides equilibrium, balance and information about how our head is moving.
To get a sense of the importance of vision, try standing on one foot while your eyes are closed. Please hold on to a chair and don’t fall.
Falls are not an inevitable result of aging. Lifestyle and environments matter.
AARP published a self- assessment checklist that might be useful in assessing the home environment, regardless of age. (I’ve added a few items.) Indicate a “yes” or “no” to each item. The “no” responses can be moved to the “to do” list.
My rugs are secure with double-sided carpet tape.
I have non-skid, no-wax flooring.
The light switches and electrical outlets are within easy reach.
I have stable chairs; some with armrests to support me when I get up.
I use night lights.
I don’t leave anything on the floor that might cause me to trip.
The stairs are not cluttered.
There are railings on both sides of the stairs.
I have a sturdy step stool preferably with handles.
I clean spills immediately to avoid slipping.
I walk on the floor only after the cleaning solutions have completely dried.
I don’t stand on countertops or chairs to reach upper cabinets.
I use rubber bathmats or strips in the bathtubs and showers.
I have at least two grab bars in the shower or bath
I have secured bathroom rugs to the floor.
I always clean up water from the floor.
I always use a night light.
Falls also occur when we are out and about. The Fall Prevention Center of Excellence at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology offers some good advice. When walking on sidewalks, look for cracks, holes and uneven areas. Also, look for tree roots, cement car barriers in parking lots and fallen leaves. Avoid walking with your head down which can affect your balance. Also take your time, particularly in crossing streets; hurrying puts you at risk of falling.
If you happen to fall in your home, the National Institute on Aging offers some useful tips. Know that it is normal to be frightened; you are having a moment when you have lost complete control, don’t know if you are hurt or able to move, or if you can pull yourself up from the floor.
To avoid panic, take several deep breaths to relax. Take a few moments and remain still on the floor for a few moments to get over the shock. Hopefully, you will be able to get up, but not too quickly. Getting up too quickly could make an injury worse. If you think you can get up safely without help, roll over onto your side. Rest as your body and blood pressure adjust to your changing position. Slowly get up on your hands and knees and crawl to a sturdy chair. Place your hands on the chair seat and slide one foot forward so that it is flat on the floor. Keep the other leg bent so the knee is on the floor. From this kneeling position, slowly rise and turn your body to sit in the chair.
If you’re hurt, call 911. If you’re alone, try to get into a comfortable position and wait for help to arrive.
Thank you S.M. for drawing our attention to falls and how best to prevent them. Wishing you and your friends — firm footing. A thought: you might consider getting a personal emergency response system.