Fear of falling is a very common and scary thing for many seniors. The fear of falling is one of the most significant factors that increases the risk of a fall, and this fear is particularly prevalent in those who have fallen previously. Because the fear of falling is such a significant factor in older adults’ fall risk, addressing it directly with both the senior and caretakers offers the best opportunity for preventing or reducing falls. Have a discussion with your loved one about factors that could increase the risk of falling, including decreased visual acuity, weakening muscles, unsafe home settings, medications, and cognitive decline. Also, when they are afraid of falling, they tend to limit their physical activity. For a while that strategy works, but eventually, restricting activity actually leads to a loss of muscle strength, endurance and mobility; things that make them even more vulnerable to falling. Here are some ways to reduce fears and fall risk among seniors who still live at home.
1. Improve Strength and Balance
One way older adults with a fear of falling can increase their confidence is to work at improving their strength and balance. Local senior centers often offer exercise classes as well as local gyms. Some gyms even have specialty classes that are specifically designed for senior age groups. You can also make an appointment with a physical therapist to assess your senior’s capabilities and design a training plan to cater to their individual strength and balance needs. Incorporating a few simple exercises everyday into their daily routine can really help to strengthen their muscles and prevent future falls. Before any individual begins a new exercise program, always make sure you talk to your doctor about what your body is capable of doing so that you stay safe and healthy.
2. Establish a Safe Home Environment
Have family or friends assess your senior’s home safety and make any necessary adjustments to the home. Throw rugs in the home are often a cause of falls. If your loved one if insistent on keeping the rug, the family can try to find one that is heavy enough to stay down on its own, or one with a rubber backing that will not be as likely to fold up when it’s walked on. Two-sided tape can also help secure the edges of a rug, but make sure that the rug is secured on all edges.
Even if someone has lived in their home for decades, reduced visual acuity or burned-out or hard-to-reach lights can make it harder to see where one step begins and another ends. While it might not be aesthetically appealing, a strip of bright-colored tape on the edge of each step can help a senior safely navigate stairs and allow him to remain safe and independent in his home. Adding or replacing lights in dimly lit stairwells and hallways can help also.
An important change that families can make is to install grab bars in slippery areas such as the shower and bathroom. Encourage the senior to use them instead of towel racks or shower doors for support as they get in and out of the tub or shower. Other adaptations include a shower bench and hand-held shower to reduce standing time in the shower.
Medications can also be a big factor in fall risk. If the senior is taking any medications, particularly new medications, it is important for caretakers to pay close attention to changes in behavior, gait, overall health, and strength. Polypharmacy (a relatively new term describing the use of multiple medications) is becoming an increased risk for seniors. This is essentially the over prescribing of medications that are unnecessary or that conflict with one another. If the senior has multiple physicians, especially if she uses different pharmacies to fill her prescriptions, it’s important to have one pharmacist review her complete list of medications to see if the combination of meds might be causing unnecessary fall or other health risks.
3. Wear Safe Shoes and Clothing
Shoes and clothing that do not fit well can also be a factor in fall risk. The family should examine the senior’s shoes and clothing and consider where the shoes will commonly be worn. While sturdy, rubber-soled shoes are great on pavement and for walking outside or on potentially slick surfaces, if the senior has a tendency to shuffle or struggles to pick up his feet as he walks, the rubber surface can sometimes catch on a carpet or threshold and actually cause a fall. Have your senior loved one avoid shoes with heels, mules, sandals and slippers with no back closure, or anything that doesn’t fit well. Pants that no longer fit well could potentially droop and hang around the senior’s ankles and can create a potential tripping risk. Wide-legged pants can get caught on a shoe, heel, or piece of furniture. Long skirts can get caught on a shoe or heel. Tops that are baggy or have pockets can get caught on furniture or other objects. Missing buttons can create gaps in a blouse or top that can catch on knobs or handles and throw the senior off step, causing a fall.