In youth, scrapped knees are a near-daily occurrence. We lose our balance, but bounce back without missing a beat.
But for the older adult, the consequences of falling are real. The dangers range from bruises to broken bones and severe handicap.
Unfortunately, seniors have a reason to be concerned about losing ground: Each year the CDC estimates that one in every three people over age 65 will experience a fall [tweet this!]. For older people who live at home or in the community, 59% of falls are due to physical or medical conditions, while other common causes include accidents or tripping over obstacles. Falls are also linked to death: an estimated 10,000 people 65 and over die each year from injuries related to falls.
It’s no surprise, then, that the fear of falling can be overwhelming for the elderly. Over 70% of people over age 60 who have fallen fear falling again [tweet this!]. Those at greatest risk — frail elders age 85 and over – experience the greatest trepidation.
It’s a vicious cycle: numerous studies show fear of falling actual increases one’s risks to fall again. Consequently, many seniors withdraw from regular activities like going outside or visiting friends. As they do, they enter a more sedentary lifestyle which has a range of health repercussions. The inactive, immobile older adult comprises their physical condition and is more susceptible to depression and alcohol abuse. All these situations make them more susceptible to falls. What they fear becomes more likely.
Luckily, as a caregiver you can have a tremendous influence in helping your loved one overcome frustrations related to mobility and fear of falling.
There are plenty of techniques to lessen your loved one’s worries about falling. These measures will improve their self-efficacy and confidence. Most of all, it will keep your loved one at home longer, which confers the greatest health and longevity benefits of all.
And don’t worry; you’re not treading on their sense of independence: Research shows such preventative measures are welcomed by the majority of older adults and not regarded as a loss of control.
You will be helping your loved one stay at home longer, which is the largest contributor to longevity.
- Talk it out – If your loved one has avoided activities out of fear of falling, validate their frustration and sadness. The loss of mobility is a major life change many in good health overlook. With an empathetic tone, ask what your loved one’s specific concerns are. There may be one particular area of the home or community they particularly fear. Help them understand the risks and find alternate solutions to reclaim enjoyable experiences. Try inviting friends over the home or having someone accompany your loved one on outings so that he or she feels safe and supported.
- Consult medical professionals – Discuss your loved one’s concerns with your family physician. He or she can complete a fall risk profile and recommend treatments or changes to the current regimen. It may be as simple as correcting a visual problem like updating an eyeglass prescription or getting treatment for cataracts and glaucoma. A physical or occupational therapist can teach your loved one how to safely get up from a fall if one should happen. This type of practice and encouragement can help overcome fear of falling.
- Review medications – Some prescriptions medication actually increase the risk of falling. Oftentimes, medications – such as those on this list— can make an elderly person feel off-balance or dizzy. Keep a list of the drugs your loved one takes and record any side effects they have. Be sure to ask your loved one’s doctor and pharmacist to review the list for interactions or to prescribe alternatives that will reduce the risk for falling.
- Put together a plan of action – As the old saying goes: “Hope for the best, but expect the worst”. What would you do if your loved one fell? Together, sit down and create an emergency plan. If your loved one doesn’t have a cell phone, considering purchasing one they can carry at all times. Enlist a safety network: Ask a friend, family member, neighbor, or volunteer to check in regularly to make sure all is well. This will give your loved one a renewed sense of security.
- Find a support group – Many communities offer free classes that specifically deal with fear of falling among the elderly. For example, OASIS is a senior program that offers fall-prevention classes in 26 cities. Your local Area Agency on Aging can recommend others programs to fit your needs. Attending a support group such as Disabilities R US can allow your loved one to share frustrations and coping strategies with others.
- Perform a home safety check – Reducing environmental risks can help prevent falls. Have a trained professional such as a geriatric care manager or certified aging in place specialist evaluate your loved one’s home to make sure it is “fall proof”. A thorough home safety check may involve:
- Installing handrails and banisters
- Rearranging items in easy-to-reach spaces
- Securely fastening all rugs
- Cleaning passageways and removing clutter from floors
- Replacing stairs with a graduated slope
- Enhancing lighting in all areas
Remind your loved one not to carry bulky loads that could destabilize him or her. If necessary ask someone else to help them with high fall-risk activities such as lifting laundry, garbage, or climbing to change a light bulb.
- Encourage physical activity –If your loved one fears falling, encourage them to speak with their health care provider about exercises to improve strength and balance. “Weight training can improve strength at any age,” says Michael Rogers, MD, director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University in Kansas. Many balance problems can be improved by physical therapy, or through activities such as tai chi or yoga. As caregiver, be sure you know how to perform the exercises too, and guide your loved one while he or she does them.
Rather than letting your loved one live with the fear of falling, tackle the issue head on. As a caregiver, offer positive reinforcement, encouragement, and support to help your elderly loved one overcome fear of falling. You’re helping strengthen your loved one’s determination.