Smart Move: Learning to Prevent Falls

03-07-2017

It happens all year round, but most often during the holidays.

Climbing up on chairs or stepladders to put up lights and decorations, a lot of people—especially seniors—lose their balance, tumble and fall, causing head injuries, hip fractures and broken bones.

Falling is a leading cause of visits to the emergency room nationwide. In Orange County, with its high population of seniors, “it’s a more serious problem than anyone realizes,” says Dr. Almaas A. Shaikh, trauma medical director at Mission Hospital. She and other experts participated in a recent workshop for seniors at Laguna Woods City Hall on this topic.

“Each year 2.8 million fall-related injuries are treated in the ER,” says Dr. Shaikh, who is also a trauma surgeon. What bothers her is that unlike many illnesses, falls can be prevented. “Falls are simple, we can prevent them,” Dr. Shaikh says.

Common hazards

All kinds of tripping hazards exist in homes. “That favorite rug? It’s a slipping hazard,” says Dr. Shaikh. It should be tacked down or pads placed underneath so it can’t slip. Loose electrical cords also pose a danger, she says. Wearing shoes that don’t fit well or not wearing your glasses, can lead to falling, too.

“The bathroom is where the majority of falls happen,” says Nicholas Mannering, trauma program manager at Mission Hospital and a fall prevention coach for the 8-week “A Matter of Balance” class. He was one of the experts at the recent workshop. “These falls are the worst because the surfaces are cold, wet and have sharp edges.”

When an older person falls, the damage can be greater than for younger people. For one thing, a younger person can get up—many older people cannot. “When a 20-year-old falls, they feel nothing, but an 80-year-old who falls might snap a femur or hip,” says Dr. Shaikh. “It’s very unfortunate to have patients who’ve been on the floor for 4 to 6 hours, who could not call for help, and had no phone nearby. And when a person is taking blood thinner, a broken hip can lead to major bleeding,” she says.

Fear of falling

Sensing their own frailty, many seniors become so afraid of falling that they stop going out. That’s why Mission Hospital offers A Matter of Balance classes taught by Mannering. “People get scared of falling so they limit their activity,” he says. “Then they get weaker and more likely to fall—and then they get even more scared of falling.”

Mannering teaches seniors how to avoid falling, how to get up after a fall—and how to address fear of falling. “It’s not unusual to hear people say they’re scared to leave their house most days,” he says. He speaks to senior groups often on this topic. “When we ask how many have fallen, 90 percent say yes. When we ask how many are scared of falling, it’s 100 percent,” says Mannering, who works with the Down with Falls Coalition of Orange County and the Orange County Office on Aging.

He encourages seniors to exercise, even as little as standing up, then sitting down during commercials while watching TV. And he asks them share their challenges with each other, as well as solutions like going up stairs sideways, asking for a seat in a crowded bus or having a younger person help put up holiday lights.

QUICK HOME FIXES

Nicholas Mannering and Dr. Almaas Shaikh recommend these fall-prevention tips:

  • Remove small rugs or make sure they’re secured to the floor.
  • Get someone to hang decorations and holiday lights for you.
  • Install a night light and have broken light bulbs replaced.
  • Tie up wires lying on the floor.
  • Get your vision checked once a year.
  • Have grab rails installed in the bathroom and along stairs.
  • Manage medications – let your pharmacist and doctors know all medication you’re taking, to avoid interactions that could cause dizziness.
  • Reconsider keeping pets; they provide comfort but you can trip over them!

(This story originally appeared in OC Catholic, December, 2016)