When you were little and learning to walk and then run, how often did your mom or dad pick you up and dust you off? At the beginning of our lives, we fall a lot. We are just getting used to how our bodies work, building strength, balance, and coordination. Fast forward several decades, and we have lost some of the strength, balance, and coordination we possessed all those years ago. It’s normal, and most falls are uneventful whether we’re young or old. But just as there were things mom and dad counseled you against (tying your shoes, taking the lollipop out of your mouth) all those years ago to protect you, there are definitely things they can do now to keep themselves upright.
People 65 and over are 25% more likely to fall than they were just ten years before. Also, someone who has fallen once is twice as likely to fall again. Why do seniors fall down, and what can they do to prevent it?
Why Seniors Fall Down
There are normal changes that occur as we age. Being clued into the normal functions of aging may help you or a senior loved one understand how they can stay safe and healthy longer.
Balance. Older adults lose balance for a range of reasons. Loss of core strength and other muscle weakness, damaged and painful joints, and inner ear problems are common. Balance is a key factor in staying upright – and not falling down.
Strength. Our muscles affect everything from balance to bone strength, and we start to lose muscle mass around age thirty. Muscle weakness translates into more falls.
Flexibility. Many believe maintaining flexibility is the basis for aging well and safely. As we age, tendons lose elasticity, tighten, and keep flex points, such as hips, shoulders, and ankles, stiff and rigid. Loss of flexibility affects response time, reflexes, and balance and can make us fall-prone.
Vision. Vision includes the ability to see obstacles ahead, peripheral sight, depth perception, and more. All these decline as we age, compromising coordination and making a fall more likely.
Endurance. Except for the lifelong runner or hiker, most older people have poor endurance. Standing or walking for what once was a reasonable amount of time now causes exhaustion, increasing the risk of a fall.
Loss of motivation. Staying fit as we age is possible, but the declines in functionality mentioned above lead to subtle changes in activity levels. Before you know it, your parents are less motivated to get moving because it hurts, is difficult, exhausts them, or feels dangerous. This becomes a vicious cycle that increases the risks of falls and other health consequences.
How to Prevent Falls
A fall isn’t, in and of itself, a health problem but the injuries from a fall can lead to much more severe outcomes, including head injury, broken hips, and other joints and bones, which often lead to a general decline in health, it is important to offer your parents practical ideas for maintaining balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance, as well as seeking practical solutions to common problems of aging.
Exercise. When we are young, life itself often keeps us fit and healthy. We move our bodies more, lift things, engage in leisure activities that involve exercise and endurance like hiking, dancing, or swimming. We are more likely to feel the positives of exercise—like endorphins—rather than the negatives. People over sixty often hurt after a long walk or some light weightlifting. Their joints ache, their back hurts, and they’re tired. What they don’t always realize is that by doing it more and more, those symptoms largely fade. Regular exercise will do your parents a world of good. Walking regularly is proven to extend life. Strength and flexibility training is also important to prevent falls.
Proactive healthcare. Catching problems early is best before they have had a chance to cause harm. Getting regular check-ups with a primary care physician who is an expert in aging and the care of seniors may pick up on something prior to any awareness of symptoms. But if symptoms do arise, do not wait. Find out what’s going on.
Proactive vision care. Aging eyesight is more than simply becoming farsighted. If you were prescribed glasses at 40 or 50 it’s unlikely that prescription will be right for you when you are 70 or 80. Numerous age-related conditions can impede vision, and the only way to know if they are present is to get annual vision check-ups.
Environment. To prevent falls, help ensure that your parent’s home is free of obstacles and “booby traps”. Many of the things we don’t even notice anymore, like an armchair near a doorway, a stack of books on the floor, shoes and boots by the front door, can get in the way of safe walking.
Equipment. If your parents use supportive equipment like canes or walkers, make sure they are the right size and properly adjusted. Help your parent understand the proper use of any equipment they use, including supports in the bathtub or shower that are in place to prevent falling.
Footwear. Supportive footwear that is comfortable, easy to put on, and slip-resistant is a relatively easy way to be proactive in preventing falls.
It is impossible to avoid every scenario and ensure that your parents will never fall or experience injury. But knowing what might happen, how to mitigate risk factors, and ways to support them in their aging is a good start.