CMS wants seniors to be sure-footed

Bob Moos Special to Chief/Weekly Citizen

When kids fall, they usually just get up and return to playing. But for older adults, falls are a major threat to good health and independence.

Every year, about one in four Americans 65 and older falls, and about one in five of those who lose their footing suffers a serious injury, such as a hip fracture, broken bone or head injury.

About 3 million older adults a year are treated in emergency departments for injuries from falls, and about 800,000 are admitted to hospitals. But even a fall without a major injury can cause an older adult to become fearful or depressed, making it difficult to remain active -- and more likely to fall again. 

Many people think falls are an inevitable part of aging. The truth is, they’re not. Most falls can be prevented. Managing your medications, having your vision checked, staying strong with exercise, changing your footwear, creating a safer environment at home and using a cane or walker are all steps you can take to become more sure-footed.

Let’s look at each precaution:

Start by visiting with your physician about your risk for falling. Ask the doctor or your pharmacist to review your current medicines – both prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs – to see if any might make you dizzy or sleepy. Also be careful when you start a new medication. Talk to your health care provider about potential side effects.

Have your eyes checked regularly. People with impaired vision are about twice as likely to fall as those without a problem. Have an eye exam at least once a year and update your eyeglasses. And remember that using “variable-tint lenses” can be hazardous when you’re walking into a darkened building from outside. Stop for a moment and allow your lenses to adjust.

Exercise if you’re able. With your doctor’s OK, consider activities such as walking, aerobic workouts or tai chi – an exercise that involves slow and graceful dance-like movements. Such activities can improve your strength, balance, coordination and flexibility. If you avoid physical activity because you’re afraid it will make a fall more likely, talk with your doctor. He or she may recommend carefully monitored exercise programs or refer you to a physical therapist who can create a custom exercise program to improve your gait.

Change your footwear. High heels, floppy slippers and shoes with slick soles can make you slip, stumble and fall. So can walking in your stocking feet. Instead, wear properly fitting, sturdy shoes with nonskid soles. As an added benefit, sensible shoes may ease any joint pain you’re suffering.

Inspect your home for fall risks. More than half of all falls occur at home. So eliminate hazards around your house or apartment. Remove newspapers, electrical cords and phone lines that you can trip over. Likewise, move coffee tables, magazine racks and plant stands from high-traffic areas. Secure loose rugs with double-faced tape – or remove them entirely. Store clothing, dishes, food and other necessities within easy reach. Also keep your home brightly lit to avoid stumbling over objects that are hard to see. Place night lights in your bedroom, bathroom and hallways. Turn on the lights before going up or down stairs. Also make simple home modifications, such as adding grab bars in the bathroom, a raised toilet seat or one with armrests, a second handrail on stairs and non-slip paint on outdoor steps.

Get fitted for a cane or walker. A cane or walker won’t make you more dependent; they’ll make you more independent. But make sure you use the devices safely. Have a physical therapist measure you for a cane or walker and give you a short course on how to use the walking aids. Be careful about borrowing canes or walkers from friends, because what was a good fit for them may not be for you.

The fear of falling doesn’t need to rule your life. By taking some smart steps to reduce the risk of an accident, you can stay healthy and active. For more info, please email me at bob.moos@cms.hhs.gov or call me at 214-767-4463.