Preventing falls is the key to independence for the elderly

Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Senior News By Marianne Mills

Do you know someone who fell and broke an arm or a hip? Falls are the No. 1 cause of injuries that result in hospitalization of older Alaskans - 85 percent of their falls result in broken bones, with 54 percent being hip fractures. Permanent disability is common and a downward spiral may result. Many older people who fall never return home but instead are discharged from the hospital to a nursing home for the rest of their lives.

The key to staying independent and strong for as long as possible is to prevent falls. Karen Lawfer, health program manager with Alaska's Injury Prevention program, points out three huge factors involved in fall prevention: 1) home environment; 2) medication management; 3) activity or exercise. It is surprising to learn that, for older persons, 75 percent of falls happen at home - not outside on the ice - and that they happen any month or season of the year. Half of the falls are due to tripping or slipping.

Many home hazards that cause injuries are easy to fix. Lawfer recommends that people get the free booklet "Safety for Older Consumers" from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The booklet, written in large print, includes a Home Safety Checklist and may be obtained through the Internet at or by calling (800) 638-2772. Throw rugs, clutter, phone or electrical cords, poor lighting, the bath tub and toilet (getting on or off) are hazards commonly mentioned.

Alaska's Injury Prevention program also publishes a helpful free booklet called "Don't Fall For It Alaska: A Guide to Fall Prevention." The booklet lists risk factors and suggests what to do if one is at risk. Lawfer explains that if a senior citizen takes more than three medications, including over-the-counter medications, they are at greater risk for falls. Medications, either by themselves or due to interaction with each other, can cause dizziness, drowsiness, numbness or vision changes.

"Have your doctor or pharmacist review all your medicines," recommends Lawfer. The medication dosage or type may need adjusting, or directions for taking them properly may need to be explained.

If the doctor determines that a senior is at higher risk of a fall due to medications, he or she can order a walker or cane for more stability. Or the senior can be instructed to wear shoes instead of slippers.

"They don't call them slippers for nothing," explains Lawfer. Although foot problems are one of the risk factors for falls, wearing proper shoes is advised for everyone. Balance is an important factor in fall prevention.

Physical activity and exercise can increase one's sense of balance. It can also increase muscle control and strength, better enabling folks to catch themselves if they start to fall. The exercise doesn't have to be long or strenuous to make a difference in fall prevention. The "Don't Fall For It Alaska" booklet shows some easy exercises that people can do in their own homes. The free booklet can be found at or by calling 465-4170.

Falls in Alaska are very costly - $16 million per year in hospital costs alone - and they can cause loss of independence, permanent disability, brain injury and even death. To help a friend remain independent, encourage a home and medication assessment as well as regular exercise. If your friend has fallen two or more times in the past six months, encourage them to get a checkup to find out why they are falling. For further information, contact Karen Lawfer at 465-4170.

• Marianne Mills is the program director for Southeast Senior Services, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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