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Talking with your relative is a good place to start, according to the Mayo Clinic. (photo by Khakimullin Aleksandr)

Falls are the leading cause of injuries among the elderly

By Carol Brock

My in-laws were in their 80s when they each took a tumble at their senior facility. Although we hired a nurse to watch them 24/7, my father-in-law slipped from his wheelchair one night and broke his shoulder; my mother-in-law fell out of bed and fractured her hip. Both have since passed away, rest their souls.

A program of light exercise helps elderly people maintain their balance, strength and coordination. (photo by Jacob Lunc)

But now I fear the phone call telling me my 90-year-old father has fallen and injured himself. He’s a crusty old sort who still lives in his own home and has no plans of doing otherwise. He also has no use for a walker, despite previous non-debilitating falls and his doctor’s order to use one.

If you have an elderly relative, you’re no doubt worried about the same thing. Falls are the leading cause of injuries among seniors. They threaten not only their health, but also their independence and ability to care for themselves. Though lightly securing my father-in-law into his wheelchair had occurred to us, that’s considered restraint in Colorado, and it’s against the law.

If you can’t force someone to use a walker and you can’t secure a person, what can you do to ensure his or her safety?

Ask about light exercises that might improve a senior’s balance and coordination. (photos by Kzenon)

Talking with your relative is a good place to start, according to the Mayo Clinic. Ask if they’ve experienced balance issues or loss of coordination. Hearing and vision loss can account for falls, so your next step should be a physical exam that includes eye and ear exams. Ask the doctor about the medications your loved one takes, and if they could be a risk factor for falls. Also ask about light exercises that might improve their balance and coordination, like tai chi and hydro-fitness, along with physical assists such as a cane or walker.

Many local agencies offer tips and classes for seniors to help improve balance, coordination, flexibility and strength, as well as social activities, meals, health care and more. Check with the City of Boulder Senior Services (303-441-4388; bouldercolorado.gov/seniors); the Broomfield, Louisville, Lafayette and Longmont senior centers; the Nederland Community Center; and the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging (bouldercounty.org).

Safer House

If your relative lives in her home, an apartment or a senior facility, the following home-safety tips from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control can help prevent falls.

  • Remove tripping hazards from walk­ways and stairs. These include elec­trical and phone cords, newspapers, shoes, clothes, etc. Put nonslip treads on wooden stairs and handrails on stairs and hallway walls.
  • Keep plants, coffee tables and other low items out of routinely traveled routes.
    Get rid of area rugs, or secure them with slip-resistant rubber pads and double-sided tape. Tack down any loose carpeting.

    Loose carpet edges and unsecured area rugs are major causes of falls in the home. Be sure to tack or tape them down. (photo by wavebreakmedia)
  • Put non-slip mats or strips of anti-slip tape in baths and showers, and on any floors exposed to water. Install grab bars in tubs and showers and next to the toilet.

    To guard against falls in the bathroom, install grab bars beside the toilet and in the shower, and use anti-slip tape or mats in the tub or shower. (photo by Prasit Rodphan)
  • Consider a raised toilet seat with arms that fits over an existing toilet, as well as a sturdy, secure plastic seat and handheld nozzle for the shower.
  • Put high-wattage bulbs in light fixtures, and nightlights in halls, bedrooms and bathrooms. Install illuminated light switches and hang lightweight curtains or shades in any window that produces a glare.
  • Encourage your relative to wear sturdy, treaded shoes in lieu of slippers or go­ing barefoot.
  • Store frequently used items (dishes, food, medicines and clothing) within easy reach.
  • Tape emergency numbers in large type by each phone, and consider investing in an emergency device that can bring help if your relative falls and can’t get up.

These steps can go a long way toward preventing falls and keeping your loved one safe, independent and healthy.