Maureen Wendt

We all want to protect our family members as they age and help them stay safe, secure, and independent. Knowing how to protect older adults from falls, a leading cause of injury, is a step toward this goal.

Each year, one in every three adults aged 65 or older will fall and 2 million will be treated in an emergency department for injuries caused by falls. Fall injuries, such as hip fracture and traumatic brain injury (TBI), can be a serious threat to seniors' health and independence.

Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of injury deaths and the most common cause of injuries and hospital admissions for trauma. Older adults are hospitalized for fall-related injuries five times more often than they are for injuries from other causes. Of those who fall, 20% to 30% suffer moderate to severe injuries that reduce mobility and independence and increase the risk of premature death.

Thankfully, falls are not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, many falls can be prevented. Encourage the older adults you care about to ...

Get some exercise. Lack of exercise can lead to weak legs, and this increases the chance of falling. Exercise programs like Tai Chi can increase strength and improve balance, making falls less likely for aging adults. Risk factors that predispose older adults to falls include lower extremity weakness, generalized de-conditioning and poor endurance, stiffness and rigidity, and slow reaction time to disturbances in balance. Exercise can be effective in helping to reduce falls and need not be elaborate or involve expensive equipment — but it should be done consistently to sustain a reduction in the risk of falling.

Be mindful of medications. Some medicines or combinations of medicines can have side effects like dizziness or drowsiness. This can make falls more likely. Having a doctor or pharmacist review all medications can help reduce the chance of risky side effects and drug interactions.

Keep one's vision sharp. Poor vision can make it harder to get around safely. To help make sure they're seeing clearly, older adults should have their eyes checked every year and wear glasses or contact lenses with the right prescription strength.

Eliminate hazards at home. About half of all falls happen at home. A home safety check can help identify fall hazards that need to be removed or changed, like clutter and poor lighting.

The following checklist can help older adults stay safer from falls in their homes.

__ Remove things you can trip over (like papers, books, clothes, and shoes) from stairs and places where you walk.

__ Remove small throw rugs or use double-sided tape to keep the rugs from slipping.

__ Keep items you use often in cabinets that you can reach easily without using a step stool.

__ Have grab bars put in next to your toilet and inside and next to the tub or shower.

__ Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors.

__ Improve the lighting in your home. As you get older, you need brighter lights to see well. Hang light-weight curtains or shades to reduce glare.

__ Have handrails and lights put in on all staircases.

__ Wear shoes both inside and outside the house. Avoid going barefoot or wearing slippers.

The growth in the aging population, the desire of mature adults to remain independent, and the rising cost of health care and long-term care make preventing and reducing falls of paramount importance in promoting healthy aging.

My hope in providing this information is that older adults will have fewer falls and fall related injuries, thus maximizing their independence and quality of life.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit .

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