As the manager of a continuing care retirement community fitness and wellness program, I know that one of the most common and debilitating injuries that happens to healthy older people is accidental falls. Although we’re all at risk of tripping on the sidewalk or stumbling down the dark stairs, falls are one of the leading causes of injury and death among older people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, almost 3 million adults aged 65 or more years are treated in emergency departments for fall injuries each year. In fact, seniors are hospitalized five times more often for fall-related injuries than any other type of healthcare emergency.

Accidental falls can result in a variety of outcomes, ranging from short-term sprains and bumps to fractures and head traumas which may require hospitalization. In the most severe fall cases, seniors lose their ability to live independently.

My goal is to give our senior residents the tools they need to prevent falls and be fit enough to sustain only a minor injury if they should take a spill.

I lead a series of weekly classes to help residents maintain and improve their balance:

  • “Get Hip, Don’t Slip” incorporates repetitive standing and dynamic movement to keep residents limber and steady on their feet.
  • The “Fitness and Body-Awareness Lecture Series” also addresses tools for balance management and body strengthening. The discussion also highlights the importance of creating a safe, clutter-free home environment and an updated health plan in case of an accidental fall.

Technology adds a new level of tools

This past summer, we introduced new technology to our fitness center that complements our existing classes but takes balance management to a new level. The SmartBalance device measures balance skills and then offers a series of mind/body exercises to strengthen areas of weakness.

The single machine provides residents with a three-pronged diagnostic and training approach to fall prevention:

1. 10-minute assessment of the user’s balance strengths and challenges.

2. A detailed score review, highlighting specific areas of strength and weakness.

3. A customized roster of fun and easy-to-follow exercises — performed on the machine — to improve areas of risk

Personalized training recommendations and comparison of previous balance tests make it easy to see improvements and fuels motivation.

I have found this new technology to be particularly valuable to residents because it will measure improvements in balance as the exercises are performed regularly over time.

More tools to avoid accidental falls

Beyond classes and technology, I outline some simple precautionary steps residents can take in their everyday lives to prevent accidental falls:

Keep the light source on. I suggest they keep a soft light on from dusk to dawn — inside and outside — so they’re never stumbling around in the dark. If a resident needs darkness to sleep, then I recommend they keep a mini-flashlight under the pillow. Timers are another easy way to ensure they’ll never walk along a dark sidewalk and enter a dark home.

Remove floor clutter in every room. Keep the floors clear of trip hazards. Remove clutter, especially on the floor and around commonly walked paths, such as between the bed and bathroom. Carpet trumps tile and hardwood and area rugs should be secured with an anti-skid bottom.

Mind your feet. Even if older adults are relaxing at home, they should wear slippers or socks with reinforced grips on the bottom. If they wear socks or slippers around the house, then they should make sure they have grips on the bottom to reduce slipping while walking. If they have stairs, they should be covered with carpet or anti-slip tape.

Maintain lower extremity strength. The stronger residents’ legs are, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to prevent or minimize the after-effects of a fall. Fitness options such as walking, swimming, yoga, golf and croquet keep legs strong and the core balanced. Regardless of their age, older adults should keep moving. I tell them they should not be embarrassed if they need a mobility device — if it keeps them mobile and active, then it’s worth the fall prevention benefits.

Keep those annual eye doctor appointments. Residents should have their vision checked and should purchase new contact lenses or eyewear if their prescription changes. There are many affordable eyewear companies today to keep them seeing at optimal capacity.

Ask the doctor if a prescribed medication may cause dizziness. Residents should understand medications and any potential side effects. They should review their medications with their healthcare providers to identify anything that might make them dizzy or unstable on their feet.

Eat well and drink frequently. Skipping meals or not drinking enough fluids throughout the day can make someone feel lightheaded. They can set a daily alarm for each meal time so they know when it’s time to feed their body and keep it running optimally.Careful with the cocktails. Residents need to be careful not to spoil a nice occasion by imbibing beyond their limit and losing their balance. They should set a conservative drink maximum and know when it’s time to switch to water, tea or coffee. Balance management should play an essential role in any older person’s fitness and wellness plan. Residents can use a variety of tools and solutions to optimize their balance and stay on their feet.