Many people think that falls are a normal part of aging. They are not. Falls are not accidents, they are not inevitable acts of fate, but something that can and should be prevented.
A number of contributors to this space have discussed fall prevention in the past, and with good reason. Falls are the leading cause of injury deaths, hospitalization and emergency department visits in adults 65 and older. Falls can result in lasting consequences, affecting mobility, independence and mental health. Falls have such a large impact on those 65 and older that the first day of fall each year has been designated as national Falls Prevention Awareness Day — this year, Sept. 22.
Falls not only have serious consequences for individuals, their loved ones and caregivers, but also to the health care system. In New York state, every day, falls result in the death of two older individuals, 140 are hospitalized and 223 are seen in emergency rooms. Annually this costs $1.7 billion in hospitalization and $145.3 million in outpatient emergency department charges. Ninety-five percent of these costs are billed to public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and don’t begin to address the costs of resulting rehabilitation or nursing home stays.
The National Council on Aging has identified 10 myths about falls. They are as follows:
Falling happens to other people, not to me.
Reality: Many people think, “It won’t happen to me.” But the truth is that one in three older adults — about 12 million — fall every year in the U.S.
Falling is something normal that happens as you get older.
Falling is not a normal part of aging. Strength and balance exercises, managing your medications, having your vision checked and making your living environment safer are all steps you can take to prevent a fall.
If I limit my activity, I won’t fall.
Some people believe that the best way to prevent falls is to stay at home and limit activity. Not true. Performing physical activities will actually help you stay independent, as your strength and range of motion benefit from remaining active. Social activities are also good for your overall health.
As long as I stay at home, I can avoid falling.
More than half of all falls take place at home. Inspect your home for fall risks. Fix simple but serious hazards such as clutter, throw rugs and poor lighting. Make simple home modifications, such as adding grab bars in the bathroom, a second handrail on stairs, and non-slip paint on outdoor steps.
Muscle strength and flexibility can’t be regained.
While we do lose muscle as we age, exercise can partially restore strength and flexibility. It’s never too late to start an exercise program. Even if you’ve been a “couch potato” your whole life, becoming active now will benefit you in many ways — including protection from falls.
Taking medication doesn’t increase my risk of falling.
Taking any medication may increase your risk of falling. Medications affect people in many different ways and can sometimes make you dizzy or sleepy. Be careful when starting a new medication. Talk to your health care provider about potential side effects or interactions of your medications.
I don’t need to get my vision checked every year.
Vision is another key risk factor for falls. Aging is associated with some forms of vision loss that increase risk of falling and injury. People with vision problems are more than twice as likely to fall as those without visual impairment. Have your eyes checked at least once a year and update your eyeglasses. For those with low vision, there are programs and assistive devices that can help. Ask your optometrist for a referral.
Using a walker or cane will make me more dependent.
Walking aids are very important in helping many older adults maintain or improve their mobility. However, make sure you use these devices safely. Have a physical therapist fit the walker or cane to you and instruct you in its safe use.
I don’t need to talk to family members or my health care provider if I’m concerned about my risk of falling. I don’t want to alarm them, and I want to keep my independence.
Fall prevention is a team effort. Bring it up with your doctor, family, and anyone else who is in a position to help. They want to help you maintain your mobility and reduce your risk of falling.
I don’t need to talk to my parent, spouse or other older adult if I’m concerned about their risk of falling. It will hurt their feelings, and it’s none of my business.
Let them know about your concerns and offer support to help them maintain the highest degree of independence possible. There are many things you can do, including removing hazards in the home, finding a fall prevention program in the community, or setting up a vision exam.
Many falls can be prevented. Exercising, managing your medications, having your vision checked, and making your living environment safer are all steps you can take to prevent a fall. Doing so helps not only you, your family and friends, but the health care system and taxpayers as well. Do your part to prevent falls!
Otsego County residents who would like additional information, including a falls prevention check list or information on other issues, may call the Office for the Aging at 547-4232 or 432-9041.
Frances Wright is director of the Otsego County Office for the Aging. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/seniorscene.