Older adults are at an increased risk for a number of age-related health complications. But one of the biggest threats to the wellbeing of a senior is not arthritis, osteoporosis or even cancer.
The single largest cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries to American seniors comes from falling.1
So just how serious is the threat of falls for seniors?
- More than 2.8 million people are treated for injuries resulting from a fall each year, including over 800,000 hospitalizations.
- More than 27,000 seniors die as a result of falls each year, or one every 19 minutes.
- Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries in older adults.
- One in four Americans age 65 and older will fall in any given year.
- An older adult is treated in an emergency room for a fall every 11 seconds.
- The financial toll of older adults falling was expected to exceed $67 billion by 2020.1
Why Are Falls So Dangerous for Older Adults?
Not everyone who suffers a fall finds themselves at the same risk. There are a number of reasons why older adults are more likely than younger adults to be in danger after a fall.
- Nearly one in three seniors in the U.S. live alone.2 Having nobody else around in the home to hear a fall or cries for help can leave a senior to have to fend for themselves after a fall.
- An older adult’s body is more fragile and more susceptible to injury, making the consequences of a fall more dangerous.
- Because a senior is more likely to get hurt during a fall, there is less of a chance they will be able to get back onto their feet afterward. When coupled with living alone, an older adult who falls could potentially be stranded on the floor for a prolonged period of time.
- After a fall, an older adult might develop a fear of moving around, and their quality of life may slowly diminish as their socialization decreases and they participate less in hobbies and outside interests.
What Are the Leading Causes of Falls for Seniors?
Anyone could slip on a wet floor or trip over a loose throw rug, but there are certain causes of falls that are more likely to occur among older adults.
Prescription medication side effects
Prescription medications can cause a range of symptoms, including drowsiness, dizziness and confusion. These side effects can impede balance and coordination.
These side effects can be magnified when medicines aren’t taken properly or are mixed with other medications or alcohol.
As we age, we lose some of our muscle strength, flexibility and balance. Navigating a set of stairs can be more difficult for an older adult with less stable footing.
Sometimes physical limitations are the result of a disease like arthritis, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. No matter their cause, balance and strength problems can make routine daily tasks more dangerous for older adults.
Canes and walkers
Canes and walkers are designed to help prevent falls, but in some cases, these devices can actually be the cause of a fall.
Walkers, canes, crutches and other devices can easily get snagged on a piece of carpet or other object, and they can become extremely unstable when they come into contact with a slippery or uneven surface.
Due to worsening eyesight, some older adults may fall as a result of simply not seeing an object in their path or trying to navigate a dimly lit room or without their eyeglasses.
Blood flow in an older body is less efficient than in younger people. And tight clothing such stockings or ill-fitted shoes can restrict blood flow even more. This can impede motor skills and – in some cases – negatively impact short term mental capacity.
Similarly, loose-fitting clothing can get caught on furniture, drawers or other objects and cause a fall. This can be especially true for a senior with limited strength and balance.
Many older adults suffer from malnutrition, as cooking and chewing can become more difficult with age.
A lack of adequate nutrition can cause side-effects such as lightheadedness and weakness, which can further increase the risk of a fall.
Many seniors have difficulty sleeping, and fatigue can easily contribute to a fall.
How to Minimize Your Fall Risk as a Senior
There are a number of ways older adults can protect themselves against the risk of falls.
Caregivers and loved ones may also take many of these same actions to help keep their friend or family member safe in the home.
Monitor your prescriptions
Here are some easy tips for better managing prescription drugs and mitigating the risk of dangerous side effects that can lead to a fall.
- Store all medications in one place so you don’t lose track of them.
- Create and maintain an updated list of medications and their dosage schedules and instructions.
- Pre-sort all medications for the upcoming week using a pill organizer.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist about out how your multiple drugs may interact with one another.
- Write out or type your dosages and medicine instructions in large print, as the wording on pill bottles can be small and difficult to read.
- Schedule alarms to remind you when it’s time to take a pill.
- Bring all of your medications to your next doctor’s appointment and consult with them about any effect they have on your balance.
Prep your environment
There are various modifications you can make to your home to eliminate a number of fall hazards.
In fact, some Medicare Advantage (Medicare Part C) plans will even provide coverage for the cost of some home modifications that are designed to promote aging in place.
Some of the modifications you might consider in your home could include:
- Installing grab bars in the bathroom and shower or tub
- Installing extra handrails on stairs and in hallways
- Replacing shag carpeting and hardwood floors with short-fibered carpet
- Widening door frames
- Improving lighting, especially in hallways, basements and garages
- Keeping all commonly used items within easy reach to eliminate the need for stretching for an item
- Keep stairways and hallways free of clutter
- Add color strips to stairs to help with depth perception
- Make sure bedroom lights or lamps are within easy reach of the bed
- Use nightlights in the bathroom and hallway
- Place a non-slip rubber mat on the floor of the shower or tub
- Secure any loose electrical cords
Eat right and improve your physical fitness
A proper diet and some light exercise can keep your body alert and energetic. It can also help maintain your strength, endurance and flexibility, which can all reduce your fall risk.
Wear the right shoes
It’s a good idea for older adults to always wear shoes, even if they don’t plan on leaving the house. Shoes provide the necessary traction and stability that a pair of slippers or socks cannot.
Wear shoes that:
- Are relatively new and in good condition
- Fasten with laces or Velcro and don’t just simply slip on
- Have low heels and soles
- Have a collar to support the ankle
- Have a non-slip surface on the sole, like hard textured rubber
It’s also wise to not wear any loose fitting clothing like long dresses or baggy shirts that can get snagged on something and knock you off balance.
Make small repairs
A wobbly chair or loose floorboard are more than just a nuisance: they can be a fall waiting to happen.
Make a thorough inspection of your furniture, floors, banisters and handrails. Fix or replace anything that is loose, cracked or could otherwise contribute to a fall.
Live on one floor
If you don’t have a one-story home, make an effort to live mostly on just one floor (preferably the ground floor).
This may require moving a bedroom or laundry room downstairs, but it will greatly reduce the number of times you’ll have to navigate any steps.
Have your eyes checked
A routine eye exam followed by a simple adjustment to any current prescription can make a significant improvement in your vision, making it easier to navigate your home.
If you don’t wear corrective lenses, have your eyes checked to see if a pair of glasses can make things easier for you.
If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, check with your plan as some policies may provide coverage for routine eye exams and allowances for prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses.
What to Do If You Fall
Even if you do everything possible to help prevent yourself from falling, it’s important to know what to do in case you ever do suffer a fall.
Keep these tips in mind in case you ever find yourself the victim of a fall.
- If you think you can get up, try to do so. Start by lifting your upper body onto your elbow and forearm. If you are able, try to also get onto your knees. Then crawl or pull yourself to a stationary object like a piece of furniture, and use it to lift yourself up.
- Yell out for help if there may be someone within earshot.
- Attempt to slide yourself to your landline phone or cell phone and call for help. If you cannot reach the phone yourself, use something like a cane, umbrella or other object to pull the phone within reach.
- Use your medical alert device, if you wear one.
- If you are expecting someone at your house later on, get into a safe and comfortable position and wait it out.
After suffering a fall, make a doctor’s appointment to have yourself examined, even if you do not feel any pain. There may be an undetected injury or medical condition that either contributed to the fall or resulted from it.
You should also determine what caused the fall and assess any ways to eliminate that risk in the future.
Fall Prevention Resources for Seniors
There are a number of programs and organizations dedicated to fall prevention and to improving the health and wellbeing of seniors who are at risk for falls.
This eight-week group program teaches practical strategies for reducing the fear of falling and increasing activity.
You’ll learn how to control your fear of falling, modify your environment to reduce the risk of falls and exercise to increase strength and balance.
This 10-week program mixes bingo with exercise and health education to put a fun twist on promoting healthier living.
Bingocize has been shown to improve fitness and health knowledge as well as social engagement.
CAPABLE (Community Aging in Place - Advancing Better Living for Elders) caters to community dwelling adults whoe are looking to reduce the risk of falls and make for safer mobility and tasks.
Each program participant receives visits from an occupational therapist (six visits), a nurse (four visits) and a handyman (up to a full day’s work) over the course of five months.
This fitness class is designed specifically for older adults, with the intention of preventing falls.
Classes meet three times per week for one hour and consist of low-impact cardiovascular exercises, balance exercises, strength training and stretching.
FallsTalk is for anyone who has experienced a fall or loss of balance. The program consists of an initial interview along with follow-up interviews, daily reflections and check-ins.
FallsTalk has been shown by clinical trials to significantly reduce the incidence of falls.
Each state has a fall prevention coalition, which is an organization that aims to reduce falls in older adults. Each state coalition may differ in the approach taken to prevent falls.
Find the fall prevention coalition in your state to learn more.
This evidence-based intervention program is designed for older adults who experience lower extremity joint pain and stiffness as a result of osteoarthritis.
The eight-week program uses a curriculum of both exercise and education to foster improved symptom management and lifestyle changes. Participants also learn how to confidently exercise with arthritis.
These two-hour workshops are offered at select senior community centers and health care organizations.
The workshops provide knowledge about fall prevention and introduce steps that can be taken to reduce falls and improve overall health and wellbeing.
This exercise program is taught by certified instructors and meets twice a week for eight weeks at recreation centers, hospitals, YMCAs and senior centers.
There are three different levels of classes, each of which is aimed at improving strength and balance to help reduce the risk of falls.
Rebuilding Together is a volunteer organization that rebuilds homes that are in unsafe condition.
Many seniors live in older homes with uneven flooring, wobbly staircases and other hazards that increase the risk of a fall. Rebuilding Together can help repair these types of hazards to help reduce a senior’s risks for falling.
This series of 17 strength and balance exercises is performed by a physical therapist in a home, outpatient or community setting.
The program begins with an eight-week clinical phase before transitioning to a self-management phase lasting 4-10 months with regular check-ins. The program has been shown to reduce falls by up to 40 percent.
SAIL is offered three days per week for one hour at a time and aims to improve strength and balance through a series of exercises. The program serves people age 65 and over and people who have a history of falls.
Stepping On workshops teach seniors how to build and maintain the strength and balance needed to reduce falls. The program also addresses things like footwear, prescriptions and other factors that can contribute to falls.
The seven-week program consists of one two-hour session per week and has been shown to reduce falls by more than 30 percent.
There are a number of tax credits that may be available when you make home modifications for medical purposes.
These can include (but are not limited to):
- Railings and support bars
- Lowered cabinets
- Modified stairways
This 12-week program can be found at many local YMCA sand is designed to improve strength, mobility, flexibility and balance.
The program is targeted to people age 65 and over and those who have conditions that may impact stability. A YMCA membership is not required to participate in the program.