Tips for how to prevent falls as you get older

August 16, 2011 

Can you write a column on fall prevention tips for elderly seniors? My 81-year-old father, who lives alone, has fallen several times over the past year. What can you tell us?

-- Concerned Daughter

Falls are a big concern for millions of elderly Americans and their families. In the United States, roughly one-third of the 65-and-older population will suffer a fall this year, often with dire with consequences. But many falls can be prevented. Here are some steps you can take to help keep your dad up on his feet and reduce his risk of falling.

Check his meds: Does your dad take any medicine or combination of medicines that make him dizzy, sleepy or lightheaded? If so, gather up all the drugs he takes – prescriptions and over-the-counter – and take them to his doctor or pharmacist for a drug review.

Schedule an eye exam: Poor vision can be another contributor to falls. If your dad wears glasses, check to see if he’s wearing the correct prescription and beware of bifocals. Multifocal glasses can impair vision needed for detecting obstacles and judging depth.

Check his balance: Balance disorders – which can be brought on by a variety of conditions like inner ear problems, allergies, a head injury or problems with blood circulation – are also a common cause of falls. If you dad is having some balance issues, make an appointment with his doctor to get it checked and treated.

Start exercising: Improving balance through exercise is one of the best ways to prevent falls. Strength training, stretching, yoga, tai chi are all great for building better balance. Some simple exercises that he can do anytime are walking heel-to-toe across the room, standing on one foot for 30 seconds or longer, or getting up from a chair and sitting back down 10 to 20 times. For more balance exercise tips, call the National Institute on Aging at (800) 222-2225 and order their free exercise DVD and free exercise book or you can see it online at go4life.niapublications.org.

Modify his home: Because about half of all falls happen around the home, some simple modifications can go a long way in making your dad’s living area safer. Start by picking up items on the floor that could cause him to trip like newspapers, books, shoes, cloths, electrical or phone cords. If he has throw rugs, remove them or use double-sided tape to secure them. In the bathroom put a non-slip rubber mat or self-stick strips on the floor of the tub or shower, and have a carpenter install grab bars inside the tub and next to the toilet. Also, make sure the lighting throughout the house is good, purchase some inexpensive plug-in nightlights for the bathrooms and hallways, and if he has stairs, consider putting hand rails on both sides. And in the kitchen, organize his cabinets so the things he uses most often are within easy reach without using a step stool. For more tips, call the Eldercare Locater at (800) 677-1116 and order a free copy of their “Preventing Falls at Home” brochure.

Other pitfalls: Believe it or not, the improper use of canes and walkers sends around 47,000 seniors to the emergency room each year. If your dad uses a cane or walker, be sure it’s adequately adjusted to his height and that he’s using it properly. A physical therapist can help with this, or see the Mayo Clinic slide show on how to choose and use a cane (mayoclinic.com/health/canes/HA00064) and a walker (mayoclinic.com/health/walker/HA00060). Another possible hazard is pets. If your dad has a dog or cat, he needs to be aware that – because they can get under foot – pets cause a lot of falls. Shoes are another issue to be aware of. Rubber-soled, low-heeled shoes are the best slip/trip proof shoes for seniors.

Consider getting your dad a home monitoring system which is a small pendent-style “SOS button” that he wears that would allow him to call for help if he fell. Available through companies like lifelinesys.com and lifealert.com these systems cost around $1 per day.

Jim Miller, author of “The Savvy Senior,” can be reached at P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

, or visit www.savvysenior.org.

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