If you think that falls are just a winter concern, think again. You or your elderly loved ones can fall and suffer injuries even when there isn’t snow and ice on the ground. Inclement weather is not the only cause of severe falls among seniors. That’s why fall prevention should be a year-round endeavor for those in their golden years and the people who take care of them.
“The causes for falls are often multifactorial,” says Kate Armstead, a UVA HealthSouth occupational therapist. “That means that there are extrinsic and intrinsic factors.” She explains that these factors can range from living in a “tricky” environment — think inconvenient steps or clutter — to visual impairment and more.
The first step to assessing your fall risk is to discuss the matter with your healthcare provider. “Talking to healthcare providers about falls and fall prevention can help patients understand that many factors contribute to falls,” says Armstead. “Your doctor can then take a clinical approach to help you minimize your risk.”
For instance, your doctor may ask you when you last had your vision checked. You may be experiencing falls simply because you are having trouble seeing stairs or the corners of walls. This can lead to under- or overreaching, which can result in falls.
“For patients who are 65 years or older, I recommend that they get their eyes checked once a year to ensure that their prescription is up to date,” says Armstead. Even if your prescription is up to date, she still advises marking your home’s hard-to-see spots with bright pink tape and installing handrails on both sides of any stairs. Organizing your belongings and minimizing clutter shouldn’t be neglected, either.
But your eyes aren’t the only things that should be evaluated. Your physical fitness needs to be assessed, too. This is another area where it helps to get a healthcare provider’s expert opinion. Remember that being slender does not necessarily mean that you are fit. If you are strong and agile, you are less likely to succumb to frequent and harmful falls.
“Maintain your strength and your endurance with a good exercise routine, especially one that incorporates balance exercises,” says Armstead. She lists yoga and Tai Chi as beneficial examples. “You want to improve your lower body strength, but also your upper body strength because you need to be able to catch yourself,” she adds. “Participating in those kinds of exercise activities prolongs your independence and safety.”
Your healthcare provider should also be aware of all of the medications you are taking. Certain types of medications, such as opiates, diuretics, laxatives and sedatives, may increase your risk for falling. Armstead warns that taking two or more of these drugs in combination could significantly increase your risk.
“You should also talk to your pharmacist about how your medications interact with each other,” she says. “Pharmacists play a role in fall prevention as well.”
Of course, no matter how much you try to prevent falls, you cannot anticipate every risk. Accidents still happen. So what should you do if you take a hard fall?
“The first thing you should do is try and stay calm,” says Armstead. “Then get help. This is why I tell patients to keep a cell phone with them or a phone in every room or to wear some kind of medical alert system.”
Once you have gotten help, notify your doctor, even if you don’t appear to be seriously hurt. “Your doctor needs to keep track of your falls,” says Armstead, explaining that healthcare professionals need to note patterns in order to pinpoint the cause of a recurring problem. If you keep falling — even if none of the falls seem severe — there must be a reason. It is common for healthcare providers to ask seniors if they have had a fall in the last six months or so as well as to question them about the steadiness of their gait.
Do not let embarrassment hold you back. Otherwise, you could face dire consequences — especially if you bonk your head or feel sore after falling. “If you hit your head or have any kind of pain, you must be evaluated,” says Armstead. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”