Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among people 65 and older. One-third of older adults will fall, many will be hospitalized, and some will die. You’ve probably heard the common story: A frail senior is doing relatively well until she falls. She breaks a hip, everything seems to go downhill, and she dies.
But many falls are preventable. Two articles, one in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. and a one from the Harvard Medical School, provide some terrific, low-cost, low-tech ways to avoid dangerous falls. I’ve supplemented their advice with ideas from other sources. They all are based on two simple sets of solutions: changing behavior in small but important ways and changing your home environment.
First, the behavior changes:
- Get up slowly after sitting or lying down. Break up movements into separate steps. If you are lying down, first sit up, then swing your feet over the bed, then stand up.
- When you do walk, take your time. There is no need to rush.
- Wear shoes with nonskid soles, avoid loose-fitting slippers.
- If you have an assistive walking device such as a cane or walker, use it. Everytime. Many falls occur when someone thinks they can walk without the device because “it was just a few steps.”
- If you are unsteady on your feet, keep a medical alert device or cell phone with you all the time. That way you can ask for help if you do fall.
Next, the environmental changes:
- Install handrails along staircases and hallways.
- Install bathroom grab bars.
- Improve lighting indoors and out. Replace broken fixtures and add night lights in bathrooms and between bedrooms and bathrooms.
- Use nonslip mats and treads. This is important in bathtubs and showers, but also in living areas. Replace rugs that slip with those that do not, put non-slip mats or padding under area rugs.
- Repair steps and floors. Broken steps are a big cause of falls.
- Remove clutter and rearrange furniture. You want to avoid tripping over a box or a power cord. But you also can use furniture to help provide stability. So think about moving a couch or sturdy chair to a place where you can easily grab on as you move across a room.
These environmental changes are inexpensive. A handyman can do most of the work for a few hundred dollars. Many cities have remodelers who specialize in refitting homes for frail older adults. You may be able to find them through local Area Agencies on Aging, private non-profit information and referral services, or Aging and Disability Resource Centers.
A safe home that can help avoid falls can save thousands of dollars in medical bills or possible prevent or delay a move to residential care, which can easily cost tens of thousands more. Most important, it can prevent serious injuries. Or worse.