The trip nobody wants to take

By Kristin Messing, MSPT, Providence Rehabilitation Services

We spend months, even years, planning trips to visit exotic locales, new cultures, and friends and family members in faraway places. But we rarely do the planning necessary to avoid the trip nobody wants to take: the kind that happens in an instant, sends you crashing to the ground, and could land you in the hospital.

Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for people older than 65. We never expect them to happen to us, but they do, and they can have a devastating impact on our independence and self-sufficiency.

Consider these six aspects of your health: balance, dizziness, medications, vision, bladder control and confidence. A problem in one of these areas may raise your chances of a fall that could lead to a sprain, strain, fracture or unplanned trip down the stairs. If you have issues in several of these areas – for example, if you take sleep medications, get up frequently in the night to use the bathroom, and experience dizziness from time to time – your risk of a fall may be fairly high.

A little planning now can greatly reduce your chances of a fall that could seriously trip you up.

Minimize your health risks

Balance: Practice good balance in everyday scenarios, such as standing on one foot while brushing your teeth. The more you develop your balance in simple situations, the less you'll be thrown by bigger challenges, such as the dog that jumps out in front of you when you're late, distracted and racing to an appointment. Good balance also depends on strength. Build your strength daily by going for walks and by practicing getting in and out of a chair about 10 times in a row.

Dizziness: If you sometimes feel dizzy, see your doctor for an assessment. Medications, inner ear problems and blood pressure issues can cause dizziness, but these can be managed to help reduce your risk of falling.

Medications: People who take more than four types of medication tend to be at higher risk of falls – especially if they take sleep medicines or anticonvulsants. Make sure that any medicines prescribed for you go through your primary care provider and your regular pharmacist so they know everything you are taking and can watch for any potential interactions that could increase dizziness or balance problems.

Vision: One obvious key to avoiding falls is being able to see the obstacles in front of you, so be sure to keep current with your eye exams.

Bladder control: If you experience urgency using the bathroom, try to leave time to get there so you don't have to hurry. If you use the bathroom a lot at night, keep your hallways well lit and use nightlights. And if urinary urgency is an ongoing problem, consider seeing a physical therapist who specializes in incontinence.

Confidence: One of the biggest problems for people who have experienced a bad fall is the fear of falling again. Faced with that constant worry, people often cut back on their activities, which reduces their strength and balance even more. To remain active, strong, healthy and confident, it's important to continue to challenge yourself to maximize your mobility in safe ways. Do go for walks on uneven surfaces – but use a walking stick and walk with a partner. Don't be afraid to go to a movie theater in the dark – but do walk in with a friend, and bring along a small flashlight.

Minimize your environmental risks

In addition to assessing your own health, a good fall-prevention plan includes assessing the safety of your environment. Here are some things to check:

Lighting: Stairs, entryways and halls should be well lit, with light switches on both ends.

Rugs: Throw rugs should have non-slip backing. If the edges are curling up, tack them down or throw them out.

Stairs: Consider putting colored tape on the outer edge of each of your stairs to make them more visible. Don't carry anything that blocks your view of the stairs, and keep stairs – and yourself – clear of tripping hazards. For example, don't wear long robes or floppy slippers when going up and down stairs.

Bathrooms: If you've started having a little trouble getting out of the bathtub or shower, have someone install grab bars or other safety equipment for you.

Communication: If you fell in your home, would anyone know? Make sure you have a good communication plan. Keep a mobile phone in your pocket or nearby, and set up a daily call with a family member or friend who checks in with you at the same time each day.

Like the best vacations, your own safety takes a little planning. To make sure you don't take an unplanned trip, join us for these fall-prevention events:

Stepping On: This fall-prevention workshop meets once a week for seven weeks, and offers proven advice to help reduce falls. For information and dates, call Providence Resource Line at 503-574-6595 or 800-562-8964.

Are you at risk for a fall in your home? Take this self-assessment.

Other resources:

Preventing Falls in Older Adults

Aging Well: Making Your Home Fall Proof