Successful Aging: How to prevent falls and injury as we get older by assessing risks

My husband of 48 years and I are home most of the time during the pandemic. We are both in our mid-70s. While spending increased time together he has assumed more household tasks for which I am grateful. However, he believes he can do today what he did 10 years ago, particularly when someone tells him he doesn’t look his age. For example, he lifted a large pot of boiling water which spilled on his legs causing second-degree burns. He recently took out some heavier than usual trash barrels for pick up. The weight of the barrels took him down; he suffered some bad cuts and bruises. How can I make my husband become more aware and cautious of physical risks as he gets older? D.J.


Dear. D.J.

Your question is so important. On one hand, we are exposed to significant positive aging messages that suggest as we get older we can do whatever we set out to do and in a sense we can defy the effects of aging. At the same time, we receive messages that aging is a declining process causing some diminished capacities. Despite our ability to slow the aging process by lifestyle choices, at some point in our lives, we will show some decline. We may become less strong, have a slower reaction time or become less stable on our two feet. That might occur at age 100 or earlier.


The challenge is to stop and assess the risks when embarking on a physical task. Taken to extreme, we could retreat and do nothing out of fear, but that’s not a life.


As I think about falls that friends or family members have taken, it is likely in each case the person did not assess the risks, although we know falls happen despite our caution. Maybe there are some lessons to be learned.


Example: Walking the dog at the beach: One woman was walking her typically calm dog at the beach when the dog saw another dog, pulled the leash so hard the woman fell and ended up in the emergency room.


The lesson: Calm dogs are animals that are not always predictable.


Example: Getting up quickly in the middle of the night: It is not unusual for those of us in mid to later life to get out of bed during the night, one or even several times, to visit the bathroom. One woman got out of bed, stood up too quickly and fell. Fortunately, she had a Personal Emergency Response button in a necklace around her neck. The ambulance took her to the emergency ward; she fully recovered.


The lesson: Get out of bed slowly, sit on the edge of the bed and let one’s blood pressure increase from a resting state. And if making that trip is too risky, consider getting a commode by the bedside. It’s a shorter trip.


Example: Cement car barriers at the supermarket: These barriers seem to appear as a surprise. Two friends tripped over these obstacles causing bruises and an ankle fracture. Perhaps cement barriers should be painted a bright color for detection.


The lesson: Look around and take notice.


Example: Climbing on the roof: A good friend in her 60s and her husband were locked out of their house. Both knew the keys were left in their open-air atrium. With advice from her husband, the wife climbed on the roof, took off her slacks, attached them to a pole and shimmied down into the atrium. She lost her grip and landed on the cement floor with her heels. In some fashion, her husband found a way to enter. He remarked, “There she was on the ground, moaning in her bloomers.” The paramedics took her to the emergency room with two broken heels. Fortunately, she has fully recovered.


The lesson: I asked her husband about what he learned. He replied, “Don’t listen to your husband.”

We each need to stop and evaluate the physical demands of our tasks and ask ourselves, “Am I able to do this safely?” This type of thinking needs to become our everyday lens even if we are healthy, fit and look younger than our age. At some point in time, we will notice changes that might be minimal or substantial.


A few closing facts: One in four Americans age 65 and older falls each year. Every 19 minutes, an older person dies from a fall. More than 95 percent of hip fractures are caused by falls.


Three key words to remember: aware, evaluate and assess. We need to be aware of our surroundings, evaluate the task and assess our capacities.


Thank you, D.J. for your important question. Stay safe and well — and consider sharing this with your husband.


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulagingCommunity