How to Help Your Aging Parent Avoid Falls
6 smart tips to keep your loved ones on their feet
You may think falls are inevitable with age, but they’re not. It’s true that the risk of falling increases as people get older, but that’s often because of factors that are largely preventable — a decline in strength and balance or taking too many medications, for example. “Rarely it’s one thing that causes a fall,” says Mary Tinetti, MD, a geriatrician at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, who studies falls.
If your parent is getting older or looks a bit unsteady, take a close look at a factors that may raise his risk of falling, then take steps to help keep him on his feet.
Fall-proof the home. One of the most basic things to do is to work with your parents to make their home free of tripping and slipping hazards. More than half of falls occur in the home.
Get them moving. Older adults lose muscle strength and balance with age, and this increases the risk of falling. A quick way to measure muscle strength is to see if your parent can stand up from a chair without using his or her arms. “If not, their muscles are weak and they need a program to strengthen them,” says Tinetti.
While active older adults often walk for exercise (a great activity for overall health), this activity doesn’t specifically strengthen leg muscles or work on improving balance. Most aging experts recommend tai chi because it focuses on strength and balance. Have your parent choose a class that’s modified for older adults. The YMCA, for instance, offers Tai Chi Moving for Better Balance and Tai Chi for Arthritis.
If your parent is particularly frail, considering enlisting a physical therapist who specializes in geriatrics to help your mom or dad with strength and balance. Your parent can also do simple exercises at home. For example, have him hold the back of a sturdy chair or the kitchen counter for support. Then tell him to raise one leg slightly, and hold for up to 10 seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times. Switch to the other leg. The goal is to work up to doing this series twice. As he gets better, he should slowly progress to balancing without holding on. For more elder-friendly moves, check out this exercise and physical activity guide from the The National Institutes of Aging.
Scrutinize medications. Older people often take more than one medication — sometimes a plethora of meds — every day. But some meds or combinations can have side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness or poor balance that can lead to falls. “One of the most preventable contributions to fall injuries is medications,” says Tinetti. “You want to be on as few medications at the lowest possible doses to do the least harm,” she advises. Ask your parent’s primary care physician or even their pharmacist to review all their medications for any potential risks. A few types of medications that may increase the chances of a fall include blood pressure drugs, antidepressants and sleep medications. “Sleep medications should be avoided at all costs because they have little benefit but a lot of harm in older adults,” says Tinetti.
Have them do blood pressure checks…at home. A little-known cause of falls is low blood pressure, which can make an older person unsteady, particularly when getting out of bed or a chair. Blood pressure drops when you stand up. Check blood pressure while lying down for five minutes, and then again about 30 seconds after standing up. If it drops by more than 20 points, that’s a problem. Talk to your physician about what could be contributing to the drop. It could be related to dehydration or medications including those used to treat blood pressure.
Encourage regular vision checks. Eyes play a big part in balance. Older adults need more light to see clearly, and if they’re suffering from cataracts, their vision may be compromised. Make sure they’re having their eyes checked every year and that the glasses or contact lenses they wear have the right prescription strength. During long walks outside, older adults might benefit from having single vision lenses, rather than bifocals, which can distort depth perception when they look down at a step or curb.
Dole out vitamin D. The American Geriatric Society recommends that adults 65 and older take at least 1,000 units of vitamin D a day. That’s because most older people don’t get enough exposure to the sun, and their skin’s ability to make vitamin D from sunlight decreases with age. Vitamin D can improve muscle strength, coordination and bone strength.