Strategies to Protect Older Adults from Falls

Published In Aging in a Home Environment

Each year, about 14 million older adults in the United States report that they have fallen. Unreported falls are estimated to bring the total number of falls by seniors to about 36 million.

About 37% of reported falls cause an injury that requires medical treatment or that causes a senior to restrict her activities for at least a day. Each year, three million emergency department visits and one million hospitalizations are attributed to falls by older adults. More than 300,000 hospitalizations each year are caused by hip fractures that result from falls. 

Falls can also cause other serious health conditions, including traumatic brain injuries. For adults over the age of 65, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death.

Reporting Falls

Older adults are often reluctant to report falls, particularly when they don’t require a visit to the doctor. Seniors may believe that falling is simply a part of growing older. Some may worry that they will be perceived as frail if they admit they fell. They may also fear that their adult children will worry that it is not safe for them to live independently.

Unfortunately, doctors who perform routine examinations of older patients do not always ask whether the patient has fallen since the last visit. Since many older patients don’t volunteer that information, it is important for physicians to ask about falls when they obtain the patient’s history.

Some falls are preceded by symptoms, including dizziness, that may point to an underlying health condition. Prescription drug use might also contribute to falls. Doctors may need to consider whether medications that increase the risk of falling should be discontinued or replaced with a different drug.

Falls can also be caused by heart problems, balance issues, declining muscle strength, and poor vision. Telling a doctor about a fall may help the doctor identify other health issues.

Detecting Falls at Home

Almost 80% of falls that send older adults to the emergency department occur in the home. A quarter of those occur in bedrooms. A slightly smaller percentage occur on stairs. Bathrooms are the third most common location of falls in the home.

Adult parents who live alone are at heightened risk if they fall and are unable to call for help. Medical alert devices can help older adults notify a dispatcher if they need assistance after a fall, but the senior must carry or wear the device at all times. Seniors must also pay a monthly fee for the service.

Researchers at Binghamton University are developing a rapid response system that can run on a smartphone or smartwatch. The system connects with sensors in a home that detect when a monitored person has suffered a fall or other accident. The system might soon enable artificial intelligence to call for help if a senior is unconscious or immobile.

Guarding Against the Risk of Falls

Preventing falls is just as important as responding to a fall after it occurs. Strategies adult children can use to help aging parents prevent falls include:

  • Develop an exercise routine to strengthen leg muscles and improve balance. Walking, weight training, yoga, and tai chi can be incorporated into an exercise program that is tailored for a parent’s physical condition. The National Institute on Aging has tips to help adult children encourage their parents to stay active.
  • Help the parent stay current with medical examinations. Make sure the parent reports falls to her doctor. Parents should also talk to their doctor about dizziness, poor balance, muscle weakness, or other conditions that might cause a fall.
  • Make a list of the parent’s medications. Review them with the parent’s physician to determine whether the combination of medications might increase the risk of falling. Find out if changing medications or not taking certain drugs at the same time of day would reduce that risk.
  • Encourage the parent to get a vision test and make sure that cataracts or other conditions that impair eyesight are being treated.
  • Make the parent’s home safe. Replace frayed carpeting. Look for and remove tripping hazards. Install grab bars in bathrooms. The NIH has a room-by-room guide that children can use to inspect a parent’s home from safety hazards.
  • Make sure lighting in the home is adequate. Replace dim bulbs and add night lights to hallways and bathrooms. 
  • Don’t forget the exterior of the home. Potholes in driveways and damaged steps should be repaired before they cause a parent to fall. Make sure porch and exterior lighting is adequate to illuminate the areas where a parent is likely to walk at night.

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