Older adults fear loss of independence even more than death, according to various studies conducted by Clarity, AARP, MetLife and others. Yet most people are unaware that falling is the greatest threat to elderly independence. Therefore reducing the risk of falling should be the priority of family members and the elderly.
Yet, it isn’t. During the Clarity study 89% of the participants stated that aging in place was very important. Over half were also concerned about their ability to do so. Surprisingly 53% thought health problems would prevent them from aging in place. The rest believed (26%) that memory problems would be the issue or (23%) the inability to drive or get around is what would rob them of their independence. None of the respondents seemed to be aware of that falling is the greatest threat to elderly independence.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- One in four Americans aged 65+ falls each year.
- Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
- Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.
- Falls result in more than 2.8 million injuries treated in emergency departments annually, including over 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths.
- In 2014, the total cost of fall injuries was $31 billion.
- The financial toll for older adult falls is expected to increase as the population ages and may reach $67.7 billion by 2020.
Timothy Govel, a pharmacist at Northern Dutchess Hospital and a member of the Body in Harmony balance evaluation team, said a fall often is life-changing for seniors and their families. The resulting loss of already diminished muscle mass and changes in a senior’s physiology from the stress of recovery can cause severe consequences.
“Unfortunately, within six months to a year, most seniors suffer a dramatic decline in active daily living functions and approximately half will experience another fall,” Govel said by email.
Statistics, he said, show falls are responsible for 87 percent of fractures in seniors, 25 percent of all hospital admissions and 40 percent of all nursing home admissions, with 40 percent of those admitted unable to return to independent living.
Understanding that falling is the greatest threat to elderly independence, is a good first step. The next step is to put actions in place to prevent falls. There are four key areas to address that will have the greatest impact on fall reduction.
Keep moving and get some exercise.
Often if an older adult has fallen or is afraid of falling they will reduce their activity. Reducing activity is the worse choice they can make. Lack of exercise can lead to weak legs and other support muscles. Exercise programs, such as Thai Chi can increase strength and improve balance making falls less likely. You may not be up to joining a CrossFit club, but there are lots of options out there from Chair Exercise videos to Silver Sneaker’s programs at the YMCA. Explore all of them until you find something that is right for you and stick with it. Keeping up your strength and coordination are key to preventing falls and maintain independence.
Be mindful of medications and supplements.
Some medicines—or combinations of medicines—can have side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness. This can make falling more likely and since falling is the greatest threat to elderly independence it makes sense that we keep an eye on medication side effects. Have your doctor or pharmacists review all your medications and supplements to reduce that chance of risky side effects and drug interactions. This is often referred to as a Brown Bag Review. There may be alternatives to the drugs you are taking that will not cause you to be dizzy or drowsy.
Make sure you are taking your medications and supplements properly and on time. Skipping doses or taking medication without food can cause side effects that may increase your chance of falling.
Keep up to date on medical and vision exams.
Have frequent medical exams. An exam gives your doctor a chance to review your physical health and discuss medications, exercise, and nutrition. Feeling your best is conducive to a willingness to exercise. Conditions such as low Vitamin D levels and other medical conditions can make you lethargic. Do not accept loss of energy, depression, or aches and pains as “normal aging” because they are not. Talk to your doctor about all changes in your health.
Have the best vision possible. Having annual eye exams and wearing the proper prescription glasses greatly reduces your chance of falling. Changes in your vision can also reveal health issues you may not be aware of and that can be addressed. Being able to see properly is essential. Often corrective lenses or surgery can fix vision issues that left untreated will contribute to falls.
Eliminate hazards at home.
The facts show that falling is the greatest threat to elderly independence, yet we rarely consider our home a hazardous place. In truth, this is where nearly 50% of all falls take place.
Take the time to do a thorough home safety checklist. Remove clutter and throw rugs—they are tripping hazards. Ensure there is sufficient lighting and install night lights. Add grab bars to bathrooms and handrails to stairs. Reduce the need to use step stools or ladders to retrieve items you use on a regular basis by moving those items to areas where they can be easily reached. Consider a ramp outside instead of steps and replace the tub with a walk-in version.
Change personal habits to increase your safety. Wear slippers that have non-skid soles and that fit securely on your feet. Wear your glasses instead of leaving them on the table. Get rid of that bathrobe that hangs around your feet. It’s already tripped you several times. Make sure you are getting enough sleep so you are alert and not drowsy. Ask for help when doing projects that require a ladder to complete. Use your cane or other walking assistance tool if needed.
Put significant effort into reducing falls because falling is the greatest threat to elderly independence. If you are not proactively working to reduce your risk of falling then you are likely to suffer the consequences of a fall. In 2015, the Medicare costs of falls requiring medical treatment were more than $31 billion, and the average cost of a nonfatal fall was nearly $10,000. Falls aren’t just a normal part of aging—most can be prevented by addressing the four key areas outlined in this article.