Why do falls become so much more common – and more serious – as we get older?
We’ve all done it – tripped over a child’s toy or pet; stumbled on an uneven footpath or corner of a rug; or felt our foot slide out from under us when hurrying across a wet and slippery surface.
In the past we probably came out of it relatively unscathed, perhaps with a bump, bruise or a sprained ankle. The biggest damage was the wound to our pride!
However as we grow older, the impact can be massive, both physically and psychologically. Falls are one of the most significant health challenges faced by older Australians, and are the leading cause of hospitalisation among older people. Every year, a third over-65s experience a major fall, with half of those falling again in the same year. One in four falls results in an injury and a small portion result in a serious injury e.g. hip fracture.
Why falls in older adults can be more serious
Falls become more likely as we reach our older years, mostly due to factors associated with the ageing process such as:
- Deterioration in our sense of balance
- Slower reaction times
- Failing eyesight
- Loss of feeling in the extremities, particularly if a chronic condition such as diabetes is present
- Side effects of some medications
Our ability to ‘bounce back’ from injury also decreases, making us more vulnerable to injury from a fall. Bone density and the thickness of our skin reduces as we age, meaning that a mishap is more likely to result in open wounds and broken bones eg in our hip, ankle or wrist. These often mean a hospital stay or even surgery in older patients.
Preventing falls and injuries
There are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of a fall:
- Wear secure footwear with good tread on the sole (forget the fashionable but flimsy kitten heeled mules!) – even at home. Switch from socks, which can be incredibly slippery especially on polished timber floors or tiles, to a sturdy pair of slippers with good tread.
- Improve your balance, strength and flexibility with regular exercise – such as walking, tai chi or yoga, or join an exercise or gym class for older people.
- Clear up clutter around the home and garden, for example electrical cords that can be a trip hazard.
- Instal non-slip rubber mats in wet areas like baths, showers or laundries.
- Always use the handrail when using stairs or escalators.
- Consider moving to a home on one level.
The psychological effects of a fall
Although the physical impacts of a fall can be quite serious, not as much attention is paid to the psychological effects which can be equally as devastating.
Following a fall, it is common to experience emotions such as:
- Embarrassment: There’s nothing like a trip or fall to make us feel clumsy and foolish, especially if it happens in a public place like a shopping centre. Even if the fall happened in the privacy of your own home, it may have occurred while showering or bathing – and needing help when we are naked and injured can be mortifying!
- Guilt: We may feel terrible guilt about causing worry and concern for our loved ones, or being a burden as we may now need assistance with everyday tasks.
- Frustration: It can be extremely difficult is we have always been very active and independent to rest and recuperate, as it is just not in our nature! Add to that the frustration of not being able to do things for yourself and having to ask for help … it’s enough to make you more than a little cranky!
- Anger: We berate ourselves for not paying more attention to our surroundings, and allowing ourselves to trip or fall. Or we may feel anger at others and see them as responsible for leaving something lying around, which led to our downfall.
- Hopelessness: There is nothing like a fall to make you realise that you’re not a spring chicken anymore, which may lead to depression.
- Fear: One of the biggest and most negative impacts of a fall is the fear of falling again.
Seeking Out Support
While nobody wants to end up in hospital after a fall, one potential advantage of this scenario is that this generally activates the local health support system. Depending on where you live, there are often free or low-cost services for older adults who have experienced a fall – such as an occupational therapist to assist with assessing and implementing home modifications.
Psychologists can also help with understanding and managing the emotional and physical impacts of the fall.
NeurA’s StandingTall balance training app
A new balance training app has been found to prevent falls in older people by up to 20 per cent. StandingTall is a home-based balance exercise program delivered through a tablet computer designed specifically for use by older people.
It has been developed over five years by a team at not-for-profit brain research institute Neuroscience Research Australia’s Falls, Balance and Injury Research Centre.
The app contains over 6000 exercises to help reduce a person’s risk of falling for up to two years. The app is programmed to suit the ability of the user, and challenges users with increasingly difficult exercises as their balance improves.
The StandingTall program is not yet available to the public
Before commencing the StandingTall program you will need to watch the training video and do a quiz to confirm you understand how the program works and what safety precautions are needed. You must achieve a pass mark of at least 80% to commence the program.
Once you have completed the training and passed the quiz, you can download the StandingTall app on any tablet device or computer. Follow the instructions below on how to download the app onto your device. Learn more here.
Article by Brisbane-based blogger Janet Camilleri. You can read more of Janet’s writings at Janetti Spaghetti.
More articles on improving your bone health:
- Improve bone density with supplements & vitamins
- 7 exercises to help improve your bone health
- Osteoporosis and improving bone health
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