Take steps to prevent falls

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Ellen Schneider, MBA
Ellen Schneider, MBA

My husband and I received that middle-of-the-night phone call we all dread: “Dad fell, and the ambulance is here to take him to the hospital. We think he broke his hip.” Dad had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and when he went back to bed, missed the edge. He hit the floor hard, fracturing his hip.

Unfortunately, falling is an all-too-common problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries for people 65 and older. One-third of Americans 65+ falls each year. Every 13 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency department for a fall, and every 20 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall. Just one bad fall can lead to a life-changing event such as a broken hip or brain injury. Even a fall without a major injury can cause older adults to develop a fear of falling, making it difficult for them to stay active. Unfortunately, many people think falls are just an inevitable part of aging.

The good news is that many falls are preventable. Research has shown that there are proven ways to reduce falls risk. To bring attention to the issue and increase awareness of how older adults can reduce their risk of falling, the National Council on Aging and hundreds of national, state and local organizations are observing the eighth annual Falls Prevention Awareness Day on Sept. 23, the first day of fall. We invite you and your facility to join us in observing FPAD—the FPAD website includes many tools, resources and printable materials to make it easy to participate.

Here are some simple steps to reduce the risk of falling for your residents or other older adults in your life:

• Participate in a balance and exercise program.

Many residents in assisted living or continuing care retirement communities already may be frailer and at a higher risk for falls than older adults living in the community. To help reduce their risk of falls, residents should participate in an exercise program that focuses on increasing both balance and lower body strength. It's never too late to start! Many evidence-based falls prevention programs are available, such as Tai Chi, Stepping On, A Matter of Balance and Otago. To find a program in your area, contact your local Area Agency on Aging. Or consider offering a program at your facility to encourage participation.

Review medications.

Many older adults take four or more medications, which automatically increases their risk of falls. Some medications, including non-prescription drugs, may make people sleepy or dizzy. Encourage your residents to have all of their prescription and non-prescription medications reviewed by their doctor or pharmacist.

Increase home safety.

The majority of falls take place within the home environment. Increase lighting in residents' living spaces (especially in stairs or other dark areas), secure rails on both sides of stairs, clear the environment of clutter, keep as many items as possible at waist level to avoid the need for step stools, and install grab bars in the shower near the tub and toilet.

Get vision and hearing checked.

Encourage your residents to have their eyes and ears checked yearly because problems with vision or hearing can increase the risk of falls. Bifocals or progressive lenses can cause issues with depth perception on stairs or curbs, which can lead to falls. A simple strategy is to change or remove glasses when negotiating any steps.

Encourage residents to talk with their health care provider.

Healthcare providers can screen older adults for falls risks, make recommendations on how to reduce falls, and refer residents to programs that can decrease the risk of falls.

Fortunately, my father-in-law recovered from his broken hip, but it was a long and painful process. My hope and passion is that we can help older adults to take the simple steps outlined to reduce their risk of falls and stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Ellen Schneider, MBA, is a consultant in the National Falls Prevention Resource Center of the National Council on Aging.

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