According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among older adults.
Even if an aging loved one falls but doesn’t sustain any injuries, which include broken bones and traumatic brain injury, these accidents take a toll on their self-confidence and everyday routines. Fear of falling often deters older adults from performing activities of daily living (ADLs) and engaging in pastimes they once enjoyed, resulting in declining physical, cognitive and functional abilities as well as overall quality of life.
How to Reduce and Prevent Falls
Falls can occur for many different reasons, but there are several simple preventative measures that can significantly reduce a senior’s risk of falling and incurring a serious injury. Taking the following steps will help ensure an aging loved one remains as safe and independent as possible for as long as possible.
Create a Safer Home Environment
Most senior falls occur in and around the home due to environmental hazards. The ideal fall-proof home features even, non-slip walking surfaces throughout. While this may seem unattainable, especially for those living in multi-level residences, there are minor changes and home modifications that can reduce an elder’s fall risk.
- Keep all rooms free of clutter, especially the floors. Furniture should be easy to walk around and walkways should be kept clear. That means no electrical cords, throw rugs or other trip hazards.
- Keep floor surfaces clean and dry but not slippery.
- Check that all carpets and area rugs have skid-proof backings or are firmly secured to the floor, including carpeting on stairs.
- Ensure that all stairwells are adequately lit and have sturdy handrails on both sides. Consider placing contrasting fluorescent tape on the edge of each step to avoid missteps.
- Install grab bars on bathroom walls beside tubs, showers and toilets. For those who tire easily or are unstable on their feet, consider using a transfer bench or shower chair for increased stability when bathing.
- Use a non-slip spray treatment or permanent non-slip strips to provide added traction on the floors of showers and bathtubs.
- Ensure that light switches are located near the entry points of each room to prevent fumbling in the dark. Another option is to install voice- or sound-activated lamps. Motion-activated night lights are an inexpensive way of increasing visibility throughout the home at night.
- Reorganize closets, cabinets and other storage areas to minimize the need to bend down or reach up when retrieving commonly used items (these actions may cause elders to lose their balance and fall).
Choose Appropriate Footwear
Seniors often have a favorite pair of shoes or slippers, but if they are worn out, ill-fitting or an impractical style, they can be a serious fall hazard. Supportive, low-heeled shoes with backs and non-slip soles are ideal. Consider purchasing two pairs—one for inside the home and one for wearing on outings. Avoid walking around in socks, stockings or backless slippers.
Encourage Physical Activity
Regular physical activity is the first line of defense against falls and fractures. As people get older, they typically become less active and begin to lose muscle mass and tone. This leads to decreased strength, coordination, and flexibility and increased fall risk. Work with a doctor or physical therapist to create an exercise program that is right for your aging loved one. Even a mild exercise regimen can help seniors improve their stamina, balance and mobility, regardless of their age.
Use Prescribed Mobility Aids
Elders are often reluctant to get (and consistently use) mobility aids, even though these devices are meant to facilitate safe, active and independent living. It is important to ensure an aging loved one is using the proper mobility aid (e.g., walker, rollator, cane) and using it correctly. A physical therapist or occupational therapist can conduct an assessment, recommend the appropriate durable medical equipment, and educate the patient on how to use it. Medicare Part B covers medically necessary durable medical equipment (DME), but only if it is prescribed by a doctor.
Receive Regular Eye Exams
Even small changes in sight can make a senior more prone to falling. Encourage aging loved ones to wear their eyeglasses (and use low vision aids if necessary) so they can see their surroundings clearly. Regular eye exams are crucial for ensuring a senior is wearing the correct prescription and screening for eye diseases.
If your elder gets a new eye glass prescription, advise them to be extra cautious while they are still getting accustomed to it. For example, bifocal, trifocal and progressive lenses can distort vision and depth perception while walking. This makes it easy to lose one’s balance and fall. To prevent this, have your loved one practice looking straight ahead while walking and lowering their entire head when looking at the ground instead of gazing through the lower parts of the lenses.
Check for Medication Side Effects and Interactions
As people get older, they are more likely to suffer from a variety of chronic medical conditions that must be managed with medication. Research shows that the median number of prescription medications taken by older adults is four. It is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of seniors take five or more prescriptions, all of which come with side effects and the potential for adverse drug interactions.
Seniors with illnesses that affect their circulation, sensation, mobility or mental alertness are more likely to fall. Certain prescriptions that cause side effects, such as dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, fluctuations in blood pressure, or slowed reflexes, can contribute to accidents as well.
Schedule a complete medication review (also known as a brown bag check-up) with a loved one’s doctor or pharmacist every time their regimen changes or at least once a year to ensure they are taking their medications correctly and that none of them are causing adverse reactions. Over-the-counter medications, herbal supplements and vitamins can cause problems as well, so be sure to include these in the review. The doctor or pharmacist may be able to simplify a senior’s regimen, suggest alternative medications, or recommend timing medications differently to minimize side effects (and falls).
Consult the Doctor
Falls and fractures are not an inevitable part of growing older, and many can be prevented. Your loved one’s doctor can assess their fall risk and suggest personalized strategies for improving mobility and preventing injury. Evidence-based falls prevention programs are also available at locations nationwide to help seniors stay safe in their homes and communities. Ask your loved one’s physician about local fall prevention clinics or visit the National Council on Aging website to find one near you.
Sources: Important Facts about Falls (https://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html); Medicare: Durable Medical Equipment Coverage (https://www.medicare.gov/coverage/durable-medical-equipment-dme-coverage); Polypharmacy Among Adults Aged 65 Years and Older in the United States: 1988–2010 (https://dx.doi.org/10.1093%2Fgerona%2Fglv013)