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7 things to know about the risk of falling for older adults

Q. My 89-year-old father is mentally fit and strong. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with his physical condition. He has difficulty walking and is unsteady on his feet. Yet he refuses to have any household help or support except for a cleaning person every two weeks. I drive him to all appointments and destinations. He is very independent and money is not the issue. I am worried that he will fall given his unsteadiness. I also don’t want to be overprotective. What to do? H.K.

Thank you for identifying a problem many adult children face in caring for an older parent. It’s a problem with no easy solution. Although we know we cannot make parents (or anyone else) do what they don’t want to do, we still can try to have some influence.

It is human nature to want to have control over one’s life, to be independent and to have the feeling of being in charge. Aging can challenge these wants and desires. Resistance to change can easily be attributed to just being stubborn. There usually is more. For example, older individuals may resist change because they may want to hide their frailties or weaknesses or there may be no motivation to change because “things are fine the way they are.” Refusing help may minimize their own uncertainties and fears for the future. Yet studies have indicated that older people fear becoming dependent even more than death.

Your concern about your father falling is a valid one. We know falls in later life can have serious consequences. Check what you know by taking this short true/false quiz, based on information from the National Council on Aging.

1. Among those age 65 and older, more than one out of four people fall each year and less than half tell their doctor.

True. The risk is high for this age group. Older adults may not want anyone to know about a fall because it can be a sign of vulnerability that might require support they do not welcome.

2. With modern medicine, hip fractures have become less serious with most older adults experiencing a full recovery.

False. In the U.S., hip fractures are considered a leading public health concern. Statistics indicate one-third of older adults with a hip fracture die within the year. More recent research indicates 21 percent.

3. Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.

True. More than 80 percent of such injuries among adults age 65 and older is caused by a fall. One reason is that with age our bodies start to shrink and that includes the brain. As the brain shrinks, there is more space between the skull and brain. (This has nothing to do with intelligence).

4. People with mild hearing loss are nearly three times as likely to fall.

True. According to a Johns Hopkins study, older adults who cannot hear well might not be aware of their environment making tripping more likely. “Gait and balance … are actually very cognitively demanding. If hearing loss imposes a cognitive load, there may be fewer cognitive resources to help with maintaining balance and gait.”

5. In 2015, the estimated medical costs for fatal and nonfatal falls were about $10 billion.

False. It was about $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid paid 75 percent of these costs. Overall medical spending for fatal falls was estimated to be $754 million.

6. Adults age 75 and older are at the highest risk of dying from a fall.

True. The death rate for adults 75 and older is more than 2.5 times higher than any other age group. In 2021 there were close to 21,000 deaths for that age group. Compare that to a little over 4,500 deaths for the 65 to 74 age group.

7. Being afraid that you will fall is one way to avoid falling.

False. Fear of falling, often referred to as FOF, can actually increase your risk of falling. It has a detrimental effect on balance performance in older adults and affects about one-third of older adults who have taken a fall.

H.K, hopefully, this information affirms your concern and motivates you to look at your father’s living environment. There is a fine line between preventing a potential disaster and also respecting the dignity and independence of a parent. There is much one can do to lessen the risk of falling, beginning with one’s home. That’s for next week. Stay well and know that kindness is a way of life.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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