Q. My mother is 83 years young and fortunately, in excellent health. She’s incredibly active and socializes a lot. Recently, I noticed for the first time that her walk was a little slower and that she took a longer time getting in and out of the car. My mother lives alone and now I’m concerned about her falling. I’ve read so much about seniors falling. How do I know if she’s at risk for falling and how can I help to prevent it?
A. You are right to be concerned because falls and fear of falling are very common among older adults. Research shows that nearly one in three people over the age of 65 has a fall in a given year. And while not all of these falls cause injuries, many do.
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Older women are particularly vulnerable to hip fractures.
To learn what factors contribute to falls in the elderly and how you should evaluate your mother’s situation, I turned to Dr. Joseph Ouslander, senior associate dean of Geriatric Programs at Florida Atlantic University and a renowned Falls Prevention researcher. He cited six common risk factors for falling:
• A slow or unsteady gait;
• Uncorrected vision problems;
• Untreated pain — especially in the legs or back;
• Certain types of medications — mainly drugs that affect blood pressure or those taken for anxiety, depression and sleep difficulty;
• Inactivity with muscle weakness;
• Low levels of Vitamin D.
Interestingly, he added that having had a recent fall, or being afraid of falling are risk factors for seniors as well.
What can you do to help your mother prevent a fall? Ouslander says “Addressing your parent’s underlying risk factors with him or her is an important first step. For example: if there is muscle weakness or poor balance, muscle strengthening and balance exercises (mainly Tai Chi) can be helpful for those who can participate. Reviewing medications and changing them if indicated are important for the drug categories listed above.
Making sure that vision is corrected, footwear is appropriate, and Vitamin D levels are normal are also important in fall prevention.”
With all this in mind, this is a good time to talk to your mother about her potential risk of falling and your concerns. The two of you can work together to make sure her home is as safe as possible for her. A good resource for this conversation is the The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control whose website includes a detailed Home Falls Prevention Checklist that you can review together and make any adjustments to her home that are necessary.
This may be an easier discussion to have than you think. She may be worried herself, and welcome your help.
Nancy Stein, Ph.D., is the founder of SeniorityMatters.com, a local caregiver advisory and referral service for South Florida seniors and their families. You can contact her at nancy@ senioritymatters.com.