Preventing Falls in Seniors and The Importance of Balance
Falling is a common cause of injury among older adults. Learn how you can help prevent falls and stay safe as you age and try to learn the risk factors.
Falls are one of the greatest dangers facing the elderly population in Canada.
In fact, according to a report by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), falls were the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations among seniors in 2009/10 and somewhere between 20% and 30% of seniors fall each year.
Depending on the severity of the fall, it can have a devastating impact on you, potentially causing chronic pain and a reduced quality of life. Even without an injury, falling can destroy your confidence and decrease your level of activity.
Clearly, falls are a serious problem and finding ways to prevent them is very important for our senior population.
There are many conditions associated with aging that contribute to falling. I’ll lay out a few of them to better illustrate why some of the suggested prevention techniques are so useful.
Chronic diseases and disabilities can often increase the likelihood of falling. Examples include diabetes, arthritis, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, and heart disease, since they cause physical limitations that affect mobility and balance.
The PHAC mentions that osteoporosis, while not affecting your risk of falling, increases the risk of fractures from falls.
Another risk factor is low vision as it makes it more difficult to detect hazards in one’s environment.
Additionally, the PHAC states that seniors generally exhibit different behaviours in terms of visual attention than young adults, such as not looking at a handrail when entering an unfamiliar environment.
Seniors also tend to experience decreases in muscle strength and endurance. Muscle weakness can prevent a person from being able to catch themselves when they slip or stumble, turning every slight imbalance into a fall.
Physical fitness is actually the most important risk factor according to PHAC, since it more than quadruples the risk of a fall.
Now, on to some of the preventative measures suggested by the injury prevention charity Parachute.
Try to exercise frequently to maintain your physical fitness and build strength. There are also many exercises you can do to challenge your balance and improve your ability to stay on your feet.
Examples of stability exercises include standing on one foot (while holding on to a chair or wall), walking heel to toe, and back leg raises.
Get your sight checked regularly to ensure that you can rely on your senses to detect obstacles. It’s critical to know when you’re at risk for falling, and low vision will certainly put you at risk.
Consider using a cane or walker if needed. You might be able to regain your balance through exercise, but you should try to mitigate risk when it’s unnecessary.
McMaster University has four tips for avoiding falls:
- Build up strength, as research supports the benefits of high intensity progressive resistance strength training (use a weight that’s difficult but doable and increase the weight as it becomes easier)
- Regain and maintain balance with exercise systems like Pilates and tai chi
- Perform a medication review with your doctor to assess the benefits and risks of your medications, since some meds or combinations of them can cause disorientation or sleepiness
- Maybe see a podiatrist for advice or footwear that will help you with stability.
The layout of your home can have a major impact on your safety from falls. Each area of your home has its own potential safety issues that you’ll want to investigate.
For instance, clutter on the floor of your bedroom can cause you to trip. If you have furniture arranged in an awkward way, it can make it difficult to access your doorway safely.
Poor or no night lighting can lead to falls if you have to get up at night. Try to avoid these things in your bedroom.
Making sure you have proper lighting in your stairs and hallways and that they are free from clutter will decrease your risk of tripping and falling. Handrails can also go a long way in helping you keep yourself stabilized.
In your living room, making sure there are no exposed wires will eliminate them as a potential tripping hazard. Removing or securing unsecured rugs as well as clearing clutter also serve to make the area safer.
Installing grab bars in your bathroom next to your toilet and shower will help you stabilize yourself when exiting either of them. Like the bedroom, proper night lighting will increase visibility if you need to use the bathroom at night.
Having a loose bath mat creates a slipping hazard, so you should have a non-slip mat to make your bathroom safer.
When it comes to your kitchen, try to keep all of your most commonly-used items well within reach. Either have a secured rug or no rug at all to avoid tripping.
Keeping pet dishes in areas of the kitchen that are frequently used creates a tripping hazard, so try putting them out of the way.
We’ve looked at ways to prevent falling, but what should you do if you’ve fallen?
If you can get up, the first thing you should do is catch your breath. Check to see if you’re injured and, even if you think you’re alright, take your time before getting up.
The PHAC suggests pulling yourself towards a chair or some other sturdy object and using it to stabilize yourself while you stand up. You should sit down once you’ve gotten back up and stay calm throughout the process.
If you find yourself unable to get back up, you’ll have to get help. Try calling out if you think you’ll be heard or use an emergency call device if you have one on you.
If neither is possible, try to slide yourself towards a phone or a place where you’ll be heard. You can try making as much noise as you can with a cane or another object to attract attention.
Wait for help in the most comfortable position for you. If it’s possible, place a pillow under your head and pull a blanket over yourself to keep warm. Try to move your joints to improve circulation and prevent stiffness.
If you witness a fall, don’t try to get them up right away. Instead, check to see if they are conscious or unconscious and whether they are injured or not.
If the person is able to get up, bring them a chair and help them get into a kneeling position with both of their hands on the chair. With a firm grip on their hips, help the person to stand up, turn around, and sit down.
If the person you saw fall cannot get up, call for help and give them first aid if you’re able to do so. Help them get into a comfortable position and keep them warm with a piece of clothing or a blanket.
As the most common cause for injury-related death, hospitalization, and emergency department visits for older adults in Canada, falls have to be prevented for the safety of the elderly.
You can protect yourself by wearing well-fitting shoes and taking your time when getting up or walking around, as well as by using the other techniques mentioned previously.
Knowing about the danger and how to prevent it is the best way to stay safe.