One fall is likely to lead to another. Seniors who have fallen once have a 200 percent risk of falling again, says Dr. Gwendolyn Graddy-Dansby, a geriatrician at Henry Ford Health System and medical director for PACE Southeast Michigan. This is partially because the original reason for the fall was not addressed and partially because of a fear of falling.
To prevent that first fall – or avoid a second one– she recommends building strength and balance, monitoring your medicines, and keeping an eye on your environment.
Many falls occur because of lower body weakness and lack of balance; proper exercise can help both.
“I can’t overemphasize the importance of activity,” Dr. Graddy-Dansby says. This includes walking, strength and balance exercises, and tai chi, a Chinese martial art that can help improve circulation, balance and energy.
Walking 30 minutes a day is ideal, but do what you can. It’s good for your physical health and can improve your mental outlook, she says. Make sure you wear the right type of shoes – low-heeled, with a good grip in the soles.
Simple in-home exercises can build important lower-body strength. Check with your doctor before you start a new exercise routine.
Dr. Graddy-Dansby’s suggests this simple routine:
- Hold on to the back of a sturdy, stable chair.
- Stand on one leg for 10 seconds, then stand on the other for 10 seconds.
- Stand on one leg and lift the other leg to the side; bring it down and do the same thing with the other side. Do each for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Stand on one leg and kick the other leg back, then change legs. Do each for 10 to 20 seconds.
“You don’t need to be a ballerina,” she cautions. Just get moving. Dr. Graddy-Dansby also highly recommends tai chi. “It helps maintain and improve balance. And it’s safe,” she says. Check with your local senior center for classes.
Often, tripping is caused by poor vision; for example, you can’t see where one stair ends and the other begins. Make sure you have the right glasses and wear them. Impaired vision may result from eye disease such as cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration. See a specialist for treatment.
You also can make a simple do-it-yourself modification to stairs, using neon tape to mark the end of each step.
The cause of a fall may rest in your medicine cabinet, Dr. Graddy-Dansby says. Pain medications, tranquilizers, sedatives and antidepressants can cause weakness, reduce your mental sharpness, and make you less steady on your feet.
Taking multiple drugs can lead to dangerous interactions, increasing or decreasing their effects. For example, some pain medications can affect blood pressure drugs.
Get your prescriptions and over-the-counter drug use checked to assure you’re taking the right medication at the right dosage, that your drugs work efficiently together, and you understand the side effects.
It may be your castle, but your house has several danger zones, Dr. Graddy-Dansby says.
- Baths. Install solid grab bars. These should be screwed into the wall. Avoid suction cups. “Remember you are putting your entire weight on that bar,” she says.
- Lights. All areas, including hallways, must be well lit, and the lights should illuminate the floor. Lights that shine directly into your face do more harm than good. Ideally, use soft LED bulbs.
- Rugs. As we age, we tend to not lift our feet adequately, which means we can catch the edge of a throw rug. “And down you go,” Dr. Graddy-Dansby says. Get rid of throw rugs. If you love the rug, hang it on the wall.