Elderly people suffer 29 million falls annually in the United States. When a frail older person falls, they’re more likely than a younger person to suffer severe injuries, such as broken bones or concussions.
As a geriatric nurse practitioner, I have seen firsthand that falls are among the worst things that can happen to older adults. Falls are the No. 1 cause of injury-related death for people 65 and older. Falls that result in hip fracture, for example, can lead to loss of independence, serious health complications, or death.
I don’t want to scare you if the seniors in your life are active and independent. But fall risk is vital to consider as your loved ones age and their risk for fall-related injuries increases.
Why are seniors at high risk for falls?
So many physical factors work against us as we age. Our muscles become weaker, our joints become stiff and painful with arthritis, and our ligaments become shorter and stiffer, impairing how we walk.
Other coexisting conditions increase the risk of falls, including:
- Dementia or other brain diseases
- Peripheral neuropathy (lost feeling in the toes and feet) from diabetes
- Living a sedentary lifestyle
- Obesity or being overweight
- Poor vision
- Problems with the feet or toenails
- Suffering from the effects of a stroke
- Taking certain medications, such as for high blood pressure
Hip fractures are among the most serious injuries an elderly person can sustain after a fall – they face a 20 percent risk of dying within a year after the injury. And 20 to 30 percent of elderly people who fall never regain their full mobility or quality of life. Once an elderly person falls, they’re at greater risk for suffering another fall in the future.
3 tips to reduce the risk of falls for seniors
When BrightStar Care starts to care for a new client, our Registered Nurse Director of Nursing conducts a comprehensive health and wellness evaluation to determine lifestyle, medical, and environmental factors that may put their health at risk. A fall-risk assessment is part of this process.
We weave risks into their personal care plan so nurses and family caregivers know what they need to focus on to keep the client safe from falls at home. Often, these reviews point to three main areas of risk: home safety, medications, and mindfulness.
1. Optimize your loved one’s home
Household items and fixtures that may seem harmless to you and me can be dangerous to elderly people. Reinforce these tips with your loved one at home, and ask your in-home nurse to recommend other tips for your loved one’s home:
- Bathroom: Install grab bars on shower walls and non-slip sticky pads on the floor of the tub or shower. If your loved one has trouble getting in or out of the tub, consider investing in a bathtub transfer bench to help them get in and out easier.
- Lighting: Make sure the room is adequately lit and that the client can reach all light switches and pull strings.
- Furniture: Arrange furniture in such a way that the client can grasp or brace against a firm surface to get up and down easily. Help the client get rid of or store loose, light furniture such as bar stools or rolling ottomans that could tip or give way when the client braces against it, or that could cause them to trip. Sturdy furniture that isn’t too squishy also promotes better body alignment, which makes it easier to sit down and get up.
- Rugs and carpets: Avoid throw rugs and loose, shaggy carpeting. If you must use a rug, affix a durable, non-slip backing to the rug and place it so that the corners are unlikely to flip up.
- Clutter: Clear pathways of items that aren’t needed for constant use. This could include storage totes, hobby supplies, reading materials, or other items that could easily be stored and accessed from a shelf or cabinet.
- Mobility tools: Remind your loved one to set their cane, walker, wheelchair, or grabber out of the way when not in use. These tools are meant to prevent falls, not cause them!
2. Review medication side effects
Certain medications can cause dizziness, sleepiness, or fainting. These increase the risk for falls, especially in older people. Major culprits include medications for high blood pressure, heart failure, pain management, or disturbed sleep.
If your loved one has any of these conditions, talk through their prescription list with a BrightStar Care nurse. The nurse can pinpoint dangerous medication interactions or give you peace of mind that your loved one’s medications are safe. This is an easy way to avoid falls and other potentially life-threatening side effects.
3. Urge loved ones to be mindful of their surroundings
I always tell clients, “Look out below!” We have a good laugh, but it’s solid advice. Remind your loved ones to survey their surroundings before they stand or sit.
- Are kids in the house (and their toys, books, etc.) out from under your loved one’s feet?
- Is the chair they’re about to sit on stable, sturdy, and unlikely to slip?
- Are your feet firmly planted on solid ground and not a slippery rug?
Another big fall culprit is the family pet. The benefits of pet ownership for older people are astounding – feeling needed, getting exercise, and having companionship. But those dogs and cats love to be in their owners’ paths. Clients should double-check every time they sit, stand, or take a step to see if the family pet is underfoot.
I often recommend that they add a little jingle bell to the pet’s collar for extra awareness of the animal’s whereabouts. And it’s fun to hear that jingle-jangle when their pet greets them at the door.
What to do when a fall happens
Under no circumstances should an elderly person try to get up on their own after a fall – not even if they feel no pain from the accident. If they’ve broken a hip or another bone, they will do more damage to the fracture and surrounding muscle tissue as they try to get up.
A client should call for help immediately after a fall, either to a nearby caregiver in the home or 9-1-1 if they’re in pain or recognize that they’re injured. I recommend clients wear an emergency pendant or carry a small, light cellphone in their pocket at all times for emergency situations.
Even if your loved one seems OK after a fall, it’s important to get them evaluated by a doctor, and to let your in-home nurse know as well. Many times the reason for the fall isn’t obvious, and that means there is something else going on with their health.
Elderly people often are afraid to let caregivers know they fell. Clients tell us that they worry their family will “put them in a home,” be angry with them, or strip away some of their independence.
I implore you to sit down with your loved one and let them know that their safety and health is your primary concern. Being honest about their well-being will allow you to provide an appropriate level of care while still maintaining their independence for as long as you can. A BrightStar Care nurse can help you approach the topic of fall prevention and reporting with your loved one.
If you need help evaluating fall risks at home or caring for a loved one who has suffered a fall, call 866-618-7827, or contact a BrightStar Care® home care agency near you.