Susan Kohler Commentary: “National Fall Prevention Awareness”

I’d like to talk to you about fall prevention, which has its own national awareness day this month on the 22nd. That also happens to be the first day of Fall.
Each year I commemorate National Fall Prevention Awareness Day as a way to honor my mother, whose life changed forever due to a fall. Did you know that falls are the leading cause of injury or death for older Americans? They threaten the safety and independence of older adults and take enormous economic and emotional tolls. My mother lost her independence after hitting her head when she tripped backwards over something that should not have been there. For the next seven years she lived in an assisted living facility with supplemental support, spending nearly three-quarters of a million dollars out of pocket for that care before she passed away. That amount does not include what Medicare, long term care insurance or supplemental insurance covered, either.
This summer a dear friend’s mother fell and hit her head on the sidewalk. She did not live more than 24 hours. She was a healthy, vibrant 80-year-old involved in many activities. One moment she was standing up fine, the next moment she was on the ground with a terminal head injury.
My point is the bad effects of a fall may manifest over years or they may occur instantaneously. The good news is that falling is not an inevitable result of aging. Through evidence-based interventions, practical lifestyle adjustments, and community partnerships, the number of falls among older adults can be substantially reduced.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has launched collaborative activities with the Administration on Aging, the Archstone Foundation, the Home Safety Council and other partners to address the growing problem of falls and fall-related injuries among adults aged 65 and older. Additionally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are conducting research on the actual impact of falls on the health care system. In the year 2000 the direct medical costs of fatal and nonfatal fall injuries totaled more than $19 billion; this is expected to be close to $54 billion by 2020.
I believe one of the most important aspects of fall prevention is convincing older adults that they are at risk but they can do something about it. A variety of exercise programs focus on balance in older adults, but the older adult has to commit to finding and participating in such a program.
On their web site, Mayo Clinic has posted six tips to prevent falls. These are worth mentioning today to get you thinking about what may contribute to an older person’s risk of falling.
1. Have your physician review your prescriptions and over the counter medications and supplements. Your doctor can check for possible side effects and interactions that may increase your risk of falling.
2. Keep moving. Physical activity can go a long way toward fall prevention. If you are afraid to exercise because you fear falling, talk to your doctor who may recommend a carefully monitored exercise program or refer you to a physical therapist.
3. Wear sensible shoes. Women, let those heels go! Make sure you buy properly fitting, sturdy shoes with nonskid soles. Choose lace up instead of slip on shoes but make sure you keep the laces tied.
4. Remove home hazards. Look around your home and remove boxes, electrical cords, phone cords or anything that may block your walkway. Use nonslip mats in your bathroom or shower and repair loose, wooden floorboards and carpeting right away.
5. Light up your living space. Keep your home brightly lit to avoid tripping on objects that are hard to see. Place night lights in your bedroom, bathroom and hallways and turn on lights before going up or down stairs.
6. Use assistive devices to help keep your balance. How many people do you see who don’t listen to their doctor when told to use a walker or cane? Lift chairs, hand rails for both sides of stairways, nonslip treads for bare-wood steps and a raised toilet seat or one with armrests are other assistive devices that can make a big difference.
If necessary, ask your doctor for a referral to an occupational therapist who can help you brainstorm other fall-prevention strategies.
My mother’s fall was preventable in so many ways. My hope is that others do not have to experience what she did. I urge you to please seek out an appropriate exercise program to build better balance and take heed of Mayo Clinic’s six tips to prevent falls.

Susan Kohler is the CEO of Missoula Aging Services.

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