Injuries sustained in falls send many senior citizens to the emergency department each year. According to the CDC, one out of three adults aged 65 and older falls each year. Fear of falling is common among the elderly and can lead to withdrawal from normal activities, such as running errands and socializing outside of the home. The majority of falls occur at home, perhaps because we tend to let our guard down in our most familiar environment. The good news is that many falls are preventable, and a few simple changes can add up to a much safer environment.
Tips for a Fall Prevention Environment
Ensure adequate lighting, especially in hallways, bathrooms, and staircases. Nightlights installed in the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom are a must for taking care of nighttime needs safely. Equip the nightstand with a sturdy, easy to turn on lamp, and stash a flashlight within easy reach of the bed in case of a power outage. Staircases need adequate lighting at both the top and bottom; illuminated switches make it easier to light up passageways after dark.
Exercise and eat well to improve coordination, balance, and overall health. Exercise that helps build bone mass, such as walking, dancing, lifting light weights, or even gardening is especially helpful. Healthy bones are less likely to fracture in the event of a fall. If exercising seems too difficult, consider getting a referral to a physical therapist who can set up an individualized plan to help you be as active as possible. Be sure to get sufficient calcium and vitamin D as well; both are important for maintaining bone health. The easiest way to get enough calcium is to eat at least three servings of dairy foods, such as yogurt, milk, or cheese, each day. Vitamin D can be a be a bit trickier to get through food (tuna, egg yolks, and cheese are good sources), but look for vitamin D-fortified cereals and juices, and ask your doctor about taking a supplement.
Choose shoes wisely. Shoes are safer than stocking feet, which can be too slippery, but be choosy about your footwear. Sturdy, lightweight shoes with a low heel and good treads are best. Avoid heels higher than ½ inch and be especially careful with slippers, which tend to have smooth bottoms.
Be sure you know the side effects of any medications you are on. Medications that cause fatigue, confusion, or dizziness may increase the risk of a fall. Talk to your doctor if this is a concern.
Keep your eyeglass or contacts prescription up-to-date. See your eye doctor each year to have your prescription checked. Use caution if you regularly wear bifocal lenses, especially when going up and down stairs, as they can distort your vision.
Install grab bars and rails. Every staircase should have at least one railing; two is better. Install sturdy grab bars near the toilet and in the bathtub. While you’re at it, check the bathtub; if the surface isn’t non-slip, a mat or texturized decals can provide much needed grip. Be sure there are adequate mats in and around the tub and sink, and consider keeping a small mop in the bathroom for a quick wipe-down of slippery floors. If unsteadiness in the bath or shower is an issue, a shower seat and handheld shower-head can help you continue to bathe independently.
Watch out for tripping hazards. Remove throw rugs, or at least put a non-slip rug pad underneath them. Excess furniture can make it difficult to get around, so this is a good time to declutter or rearrange rooms to keep passageways clear. Avoid placing loose items near staircases – corral them in a basket instead.
Organize your kitchen to promote easy cooking. Place frequently used items on low shelves so they can be easily reached without stretching for them.
Use extra caution outdoors. Snow and wet weather makes things slippery. Arrange for snow removal and request that porches and the area around the mailbox are well-sanded to eliminate icy patches. If you need to go out regularly during cold weather, invest in a good pair of winter boots with deep treads.
Assess assisted-living community conditions. If you or a loved one is an assisted living community or nursing home, many of these tips still apply. There should be grab bars or rails near the bed and in the bathroom, in addition to adequate lighting. If they aren’t sufficient, don’t be afraid to request changes. Keeping the bed at a lower height and the toilet at a higher height can make it easier to move around more independently and decrease the risk of falls.