Health care advances during the last few decades have resulted in Americans living longer on average than ever before. However, an increase of older adults also means more health challenges, including an increased risk of falls.
According to a recent JAMA study, the mortality rate from falls for people age 75 and older more than doubled between 2000 and 2016. There are many reasons for these fatal falls, including improper medication use, poor balance and chronic conditions. Research shows that circulatory disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression and arthritis are conditions that have increased fall risk.
Additionally, seniors are taking more medications to manage their conditions, chronic and otherwise; a JAMA Internal Medicine study revealed that more than 40% of adults age 65 and older take five or more medications and 12% use 10 or more. While taking more medications can increase fall risk, a larger quantity of medications also makes it harder to manage prescription schedules. This increases the risk of non-adherence, another factor for fall risk.
Taking medications daily may seem simple, but as many as half of all patients don’t take medications as prescribed—a major health care challenge and especially dangerous for seniors.
Falls can be difficult to prevent as people age. However, there are steps seniors and caregivers can take to help lower the risk of falls and better prepare for a fall.
1. Consider medication options.
Medication-dispensing technologies can improve adherence and therefore reduce a senior’s fall risk. Customizable solutions are available that help with organizing pills, reminding seniors when it’s time to take specific medications and explaining how to take medications correctly. Innovative dispensing technology can even incorporate a senior’s care team and provide missed dose alerts and refill notifications, helping caregivers know their loved ones are fully adhering to their medication regimen.
While most medications are necessary, it’s also important to consider alternatives if approved by a physician. For example, many sleeping pills can compromise balance and cause dizziness. Melatonin is a safe and effective natural alternative that cannot only help seniors sleep, but manage their fall risk as well.
2. Fall-proof the home.
A vital step in minimizing falls is evaluating a senior’s home for areas that may cause a fall. For example, it’s important to make sure rugs are secure, whether that means using a nonslip rug pad or adhering double-sided tape to the underside of throw rugs—or even removing rugs altogether.
Also remove other potential tripping hazards on the floor, such as power cords or newspaper piles.
Keep an eye out for liquids on the floor, especially in the bathroom and kitchen. The bathroom is one of the most common places for falls, as the slick surface of the shower or a wet floor can cause people to slip. Installing grab bars around the bathroom and within the shower area can help seniors reduce their fall risk. Additionally, using non-skid floor mats instead of throw rugs in both the bathroom and kitchen can create a slip-resistant walkway.
3. Incorporate exercise.
Whether a person is 20 or 70, exercise is one of the most important elements of staying healthy. For older adults, balance and strength exercises are extremely valuable in reducing fall risk. Tai chi is a popular exercise for seniors as it focuses on using breathing and slow-moving muscle activity to improve balance. Research supports tai chi’s impact on fall risk, with one recent study revealing that falls were reduced by 58% for seniors who practiced the martial art for one hour twice a week.
4. Evaluate accessories.
There are various kinds of canes available to offer different levels of support. For seniors who only need a little support, a single-tipped cane will help. For seniors looking for more assistance, consider a cane with four tips or a walker. When it comes to shoes, seniors should wear rubber-soled, nonslip footwear, like sneakers, even when they are inside.
Although implementing prevention strategies can help diminish seniors’ chances of falling, falls can still happen. Being realistic about the risk is important, as is preparing for falls. As fall awareness has increased in recent years, innovative approaches have been developed to make sure seniors know the best way to fall and what to do once they hit the ground.
Once a fall occurs, it’s critical to get help as quickly as possible. Personal emergency response systems can help seniors get assistance with the press of a button, and some can detect falls even if the senior is unable to press the button. Users can customize a list of emergency contacts— family members, neighbors or home health aides—and the technology connects seniors with one of these contacts when a fall occurs; if needed, emergency services can also be dispatched.
On the training side, new programs in the Netherlands and the U.S. feature obstacle courses designed to teach seniors how to navigate treacherous ground and to instruct them on the correct way to fall if they trip. Preparing for falls on unstable ground can help build confidence and ease the fear of falling, which actually puts seniors at a higher risk. A fear of falling can cause seniors to reduce their activity level and limit their time with loved ones, leading to isolation and even depression, further increasing their fall risk.
These programs are important from a social perspective as well. Loneliness is a growing issue among the aging population, with approximately 8 million Americans over the age of 50 currently living alone and that number projected to grow. By going to these programs once or twice a week, they not only become more confident physically, they also have fun with others who are dealing with the same concerns.
With the rise of falls in the U.S., now is the time to take action and help seniors adjust their day-to-day activities to minimize their fall risk and keep them safe. These strategies and approaches can help aging Americans reduce their risk of falling and teach them how to fall safely when the inevitable occurs. By increasing awareness around the issue and building seniors’ confidence around falling, they can remain safe in the place they call home.