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Preventing Senior Falls

Here are 12 tips to help prevent falls while a senior ages in place.

As a person ages, falling -- even tripping -- becomes a lot more dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in every three adults age 65 and older falls each year, which can lead to serious injuries, such as hip fractures and head traumas, causing more drastic senior care needs. In fact, among this age group, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death.

The biggest culprits for tripping-up? Bathrooms and stairs, says Helen Lach, associate professor of gerentological nursing at St. Louis University School of Nursing. But that doesn't rule out general household dangers, neurological changes, or balance deficits.

"If your senior has already fallen, they are at risk for another fall," says Alice Bell, a physical therapist specializing in Geriatrics and an American Physical Therapist Association spokesperson. Still, many seniors don't tell their caregivers if they fell because they're afraid that will mean they have to leave their home or go to an assisted-living facility. "Older adults need to know that if they fall -- or even if they're afraid of falling -- they need to ask for help before the situation becomes a crisis," says Bell.

Lifestyle and home modifications can then be made safely and correctly. "Have a heart-to-heart with your senior when everyone is healthy and in a good mood and you both feel comfortable addressing rising concerns," suggests Bell.

If your senior's goal is to age-in-place, here are 12 tips for creating a safer home environment and preventing future falls:

  1. Get a Check-up Fortunately, falls are preventable. If your senior has recently become a bit unsteady, make sure their doctor gives them a full physical evaluation to rule out any medical issues. For instance, low blood pressure can cause falls, as can diabetes, which can decrease sensation in lower extremities. And an untreated ear infection can also throw off balance.

  2. Keep Track of Medication Go over all medication -- both prescription and over-the-counter. Some drug side-effects and drug interactions can cause dizziness, weakness, and drowsiness. And not taking medications properly or as prescribed can also be hazardous. If you're worried your parent needs help taking proper dosages (or remembering to), ask a neighbor to help, set up a Skype chat or a phone call to remind, or hire a senior caregiver for a few important tasks.

Also, be sure your senior's doctor discusses alcohol consumption and how alcohol might interact with current medications.

To keep track of your senior's medications more easily, use this wallet card.

  1. Monitor Alcohol-Intake Over-imbibing on alcoholic beverages can obviously throw anyone off balance. If you think drinking too much is part of the reason your Dad is losing balance, be sure to discuss your concerns with him and his doctor.

  2. Start an Exercise and Stretch Routine "Less than 40 percent of all older Americans exercise," says Lach. And that's a bad thing. Without exercise, you lose your muscle tone and strength -- especially in your legs -- which is imperative in maintaining balance.

Current CDC guidelines for people over 65 are 150 minutes of moderately vigorous (meaning exercise that causes you to break a sweat, but you are still be able to have a conversation) per week in addition to strength training twice a week. Bell recommends walking (at a fast enough pace to break a sweat), bicycling or dancing (such as taking a Zumba class). The CDC highly recommends Tai Chi as a great aerobic activity, as well as a way to increase balance.

If your mom has led a mostly sedentary lifestyle, suffers from a chronic illness or has recently suffered a fall, ask her doctor for a physical therapist referral. In addition to teaching her how to exercise correctly, a physical therapist can also analyze her movement to find out if she's walking properly or able to get out of a chair without straining.

  1. Check Eyes Have your senior's eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year and update their eyeglasses. In addition to deteriorating vision, which can cause trips and stumbles, cataracts can inhibit vision which can lead to falls.

  2. Get a Cane or Walker Fitting It's tempting to buy a cane or walker from a home health aide store or even your local pharmacy, but a too tall or too short walker or cane can often cause more harm than good. According to Bell, many seniors actually fall because they trip on their canes. Check with a physical therapist to determine if a cane or walker is necessary. If it is, work with the therapist to get properly fitted and learn how to use it correctly.

  3. Build Bones Make sure that your senior is getting adequate calcium and vitamin D in their diet. A study published in the medical journal, Osteoporosis International, found that vitamin D supplementation can help improve balance and strength. Women aged 65-97 reduced their rate of falls by 60 percent when given vitamin D in addition to calcium over a three month period.

In addition to adding calcium-rich dairy and dark-green, leafy vegetables to her diet, ask your family doctor to screen your senior for vitamin D deficiency and osteoporosis. Also, ask for supplementation guidelines.

  1. Recognize Hazards Take a look around your senior's home and see what looks like it might give them a problem. A few simple adaptations can make your parent's home much safer -- and help them age in place even longer.

Check for:

  • Proper lighting: In addition to having enough lamps, be sure to install higher watt light bulbs. Also, make sure there are adequate nightlights.

  • Clutter: Stacks of newspapers, magazines, and other objects can be hazardous if they are near walkways. Eliminate clutter by using baskets and bins to organize items.

  • Cords: Lamp and appliance cords can be trip hazards. Move items to minimize cords stretching across rooms and walkways.

  • Throw rugs: Eliminate throw rugs, which can easily trip a senior up, and opt for bare floors or wall-to-wall carpeting.

  1. Reorganize the House Consider rearranging the house so that your senior can live on one floor (moving the bedroom downstairs, for example). Since stairs are a top place for people to fall, it's better to eliminate or avoid them before a mobility problem arises.

Help your senior avoid reaching for items by moving microwaves and other appliances to waist-level. Also, implement lazy susans or baskets to prevent reaching into high or deep kitchen cabinets. And keep everyday items in arm-level drawers to prevent bending.

  1. Update the Bathroom If there's a full-bath on the lower level, or you're considering adding one, make sure it has anti-slip tile, a shower stall with no tub or lip and sturdy hand bars around the shower and toilet. Your doctor can also order an occupational therapist to do a home safety evaluation, which could be covered by Medicare.

  2. Come up With New House Rules Simple rules, such as not bathing alone and getting help with handiwork around the house, can help prevent future falls. Lach suggests having a frank conversation with your dad and tell him you're worried about him. Ask him to call you or make a list of the household chores he needs done, like changing a light bulb. If you don't have the time to help as much as is needed, consider hiring a senior caregiver that can help. (Get tips on starting a conversation about care with your senior).

  3. Have an Emergency Plan Stay on top of your senior's care. Lach suggests keeping a log for at-home caregivers, detailing what is prescribed and discussed with doctors. Share this senior emergency checklist with family members and caregivers.

Also, consider getting your senior a pre-paid cell phone with your number and 911 programmed into it, if they don't already have one. Or hook your parent up with a home medical monitoring system: a pendant is worn around a senior's neck and in case of emergency; she can push a button on the pendant to get immediate medical help. Most systems run about $1 a day for full-time monitoring.

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