Those are two words we never want to hear, but if you have an aging parent, there is a good chance you will. What do you do?
Falls are the leading cause of injury and death among older adults in the US. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in 2014, older adults fell 29 million times, resulting in nine million reported injuries and 27,000 deaths.
If mom does fall, she is very likely to insist, “It was nothing. I just slipped on a rug.” Or, “I just wasn’t paying attention.” That may be true but someone who falls once is likely to fall again. Most important, falls can be symptoms of bigger issues and should be checked out by a doctor—especially if they happen more than once. There are two causes that are especially worth investigating: a new illness or a new medication.
Falls are symptoms
Falls are often a sign of some underlying general weakness. Dr. Leslie Kernisan describes some possible causes in her great blog Better Health While Aging. They include urinary tract infections, pneumonia, heart disease, strokes (including less obvious mini-strokes), dehydration, or anemia.
Sometimes people fall because they lose their balance. We often hear of older adults who break a hip or leg as a result of a fall. But sometimes the fall was caused by the fracture.
Falls frequently occur after someone faints. They may black out for just a second but it is enough to cause a fall, and likely is a symptom of a more serious problem. A drop in blood pressure—which itself has many causes–may be the reason.
Watch the drugs
Medications are another common cause of falls. If mom takes a tumble, has mood swings, loses energy, or has other sudden declines in her health or well-being, you should find out if she has just changed or added a drug. Sometimes a new drug can cause these problems on its own. Or it may be the interaction between the new medication and something she already was taking.
And keep in mind that over-the-counter meds and supplements can be just as much of a problem as prescription drugs.
In another of her blogs, Leslie lists some of the drugs that can lead to falls. Some are not surprising, such as sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs, and or anti-psychotics. These include medications such as Ativan, Valium, Ambien, Lunesta, or Seroquel.
But other more common drugs such as Benadryl and other antihistamines, or medications for an overactive bladder or nausea can also be associated with increased fall risk. Finally, because low blood pressure often is a cause of falls, medications for high blood pressure also may increase their risk. However, Leslie notes that the research on the effects of those drugs is mixed.
What do you if mom falls? Make an appointment for a medical check-up. And ask the doctor about both underlying medical conditions and drugs. If the doctor seems unfamiliar with the side effects of her drugs, seek out a consulting geriatric pharmacist.
There are other steps you can take to reduce the risks of falls. For instance, an exercise program can strengthen legs and improve balance. Tai Chi, for example, is a great way to do both. An eye exam will identify vision problems.
Finally, there are changes that mom can make at home to reduce her risks of falling. Get rid of those rugs that slide around, or buy adhesive backings to prevent them from slipping. Locate furniture so mom always has something secure in reach in the event she loses her balance. Install grab bars and other devices in bathrooms, where many falls occur.
Hearing “mom fell” can be scary. But there are ways that you, and she, can prevent it from happening again.