The Rate of Senior Falls Is Not Falling

Concussions among athletes receive a lot of media attention. Seniors, too, are at high risk of head injuries.

Senior woman falls; man rushes to help her.

During the past year, there's been much news coverage of the plight of professional athletes who have suffered brain damage due to concussions. A movement is growing to lower the risk of sports-related concussions in student athletes, as well. New figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that hospitalizations for traumatic brain injuries have risen sharply — yet it isn't athletes who are pushing those numbers upwards. It's seniors. And most of these head injuries occurred during a fall.

The CDC reports that close to 3 million seniors go to the hospital each year after a fall, and the direct medical costs for these fall injuries now exceed $31 billion annually. Brain injuries aren't the only devastating result of these falls. Broken bones, especially hip fractures, also can rapidly rob seniors of their independence. Falls are a top reason seniors move to a nursing home. And each year, 27,000 seniors die from the effects of a fall.

Why are more seniors falling?

What's causing this increase in senior fall injuries? The most obvious reason is that there are more seniors today, and more of them are older than 85, which is the age at which the risk of serious fall injury is even higher. An additional factor, say some experts, is that more seniors are "aging in place," opting to stay in their own home or apartment, which is where the majority of senior falls happen.

Once a senior has fallen, family members often find themselves fretting that their loved one will fall again. This can backfire when well-meaning family urge their senior to be inactive — which actually raises the risk all the more. Sept. 22 is Falls Prevention Awareness Day, a great time to learn about six research-based ways to lower the risk of falls:

1. Urge your loved one to tell their healthcare professional if they've fallen. The CDC says fewer than half of seniors who fall report it to their doctor. Unless they're so badly hurt that they need medical attention, they keep quiet about it, fearing a loss of independence. Assure your loved one that talking to the doctor about falls is the first step to lowering the risk, which can actually preserve their independence. The doctor might recommend a fall-prevention course or exercise class with activities such as tai chi that improve balance. (To learn more about that, read "Arthritis and Tai Chi" in this issue of Caring Right at Home.)

2. Ask for a medication review. Taking too much of a medication can increase your loved one's fall risk by causing dizziness and/or drowsiness. Yet taking too little also could raise the risk if their condition worsens. Certainly medication management is a "balancing act" on its own! During your loved one's next doctor appointment or trip to the pharmacy, encourage them to bring in a list of all the medications they take, both prescription and over the counter. The doctor can help your loved one take medicines correctly and can adjust the dosage or particular medication if necessary.

Caregiver helps senior woman down the stairs

Home care can help! For National Falls Prevention Awareness Day last year, Caring Right at Home looked at the many ways professional in-home care can lower your loved one's risk of falls. Read "The Complex Family Dynamics of Fall Prevention" to learn more.

3. Encourage your loved one to have regular eye and hearing exams. Eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions should be kept up to date. The doctor may recommend that your loved one get a second pair of glasses with single-vision lenses; the American Academy of Optometry reports that looking at one's feet through the close-vision portion of a multifocal lens causes visual blurring that can cause falls. Untreated hearing loss is another fall risk, decreasing a senior's spatial awareness and ability to perceive hazards.

4. Give your loved one's home a fall-hazard inspection. Correct conditions that could cause your loved one to trip, such as uneven floor surfaces, loose carpet or throw rugs, and general clutter. Does your loved one's home have stairs? Do you pile items on the bottom step, intending to take them upstairs on your next trip? Don't do that — the wrong kind of "trip" could be the result! If your family uses professional in-home care, work with the caregiver on regularly clearing the home of hazards. If you've hired from an agency that trains their caregivers, the caregiver will probably be able to offer safety suggestions you hadn't even thought of. To learn more, download the free Fall Prevention Guide from Right at Home.

5. Improve lighting. When we're young, it can be hard to picture what the home environment looks like to a senior who has visual impairment due to age-related macular degeneration, cataracts or just the normal changes in the eye over time. But remember: By age 65, we need twice as much lighting to see well as we did when we were teenagers. Brighter lighting — the right kind, which doesn't create glare — can make it much safer for your loved one to move around.

6. Talk to the doctor about assistive devices. If your loved one uses a cane, walker, scooter or other mobility aid, be sure it is properly fitted and that your loved one is using it correctly. These devices can cause falls if not used properly.

Indoors … And Outdoors

Of course, not all senior falls happen at home. New York University researchers reported this year that many seniors fall outdoors, especially those who are healthier and more active. The seniors they studied fell on uneven surfaces, while carrying things, and while going up and down stairs. The top danger spots proved to be recreation areas and parking lots.

Staying home isn't the answer. Prevention and awareness are! Said NYU occupational therapy professor Tracy Chippendale, "Programs to prevent outdoor falls should include information on outdoor fall risks, action planning for the adoption of prevention behaviors, and training in safe performance of everyday activities."

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.