By Eduardo Gonzales, MD
Last month, my 68-year-old aunt broke her hip when she fell after slipping on a patch of ice cream that was accidentally spilled on the floor of their house by one of her grandchildren. She underwent hip replacement surgery and can now walk. I didn’t know a simple fall could cause serious injury. How can we prevent this accident from happening again?
Your aunt’s case clearly illustrates that, for the elderly, falls are serious concerns. In fact, falls are the leading cause of traumatic injury and death in people who are 65 years of age or older. About a third of people in this age group suffer from a serious fall at home at least once every year. Many of these accidents lead to lengthy hospitalizations, permanent disabilities, and even death.
Why the elderly are prone to falls
Old people slide and fall easily because of certain factors that come with age. Aging dulls the senses. Poor eyesight is probably one reason your aunt failed to notice the ice cream on the floor. Likewise, aging brings about sluggish reflexes, diminished muscle-strength, poor motor coordination, and delayed motor responses. Thus, when your aunt slid, she was unable to keep her balance and right herself in time.
Old people suffer fractures easily because their bones are brittle
When children or young adults fall, they usually stand up unscathed. But old people often fracture a bone when they fall because most of them suffer from varying degrees of osteoporosis, i.e., progressive loss of bone mass that occurs with age. Bones that are osteoporotic are weak, brittle, and break easily.
Osteoporosis affects people of all races, but it is more prevalent among Asians—including Filipinos—and Caucasians, and is four times more common in women than in men. Women are particularly vulnerable to osteoporosis after menopause because they have ceased to produce estrogen (the female hormone), which has a bone-strengthening effect.
Exercise and an elderly-friendly house can prevent falls and fractures
You can greatly help your aunt and other elderly kinsfolk from falls and fractures by obliging them to exercise and by making your house elderly-friendly:
With the help of a professional (e.g., a physical therapist or a personal trainer), devise a fall-prevention exercise program for your aunt and other elderly relatives. Ideally, the program should include strength training, flexibility training, balance exercises, and endurance or aerobic exercise. Strength training builds muscle mass. Endurance exercise maintains heart health and bone density, while flexibility training helps in safely performing activities associated with daily living. Meanwhile, balance exercises, of which Tai chi is an example, has been proven by research to be effective in preventing falls.
To make your house elderly-friendly:
- Make it easy to navigate by keeping furniture to a minimum, tucking away electrical cords, and getting rid of knick-knacks—vases, figurines, ornaments, etc.
- Do away with throw or area rugs. If you can’t, at least make sure they are non-skid rugs and that they are properly tacked down to the floor. The edges of these rugs could cause elderly people to trip.
- Keep your house meticulously clean and the floor dry. Wipe spilled liquid or food on the floor immediately.
- Keep your house well-lit. At night, make sure there is a bright enough night light to guide old people from the bedroom to the bathroom. Also, provide bedside lamps that are within reach.
- As much as possible, elderly people should not be made to navigate stairs. Their bedroom should be on the ground floor.
- Install handrails/grab bars that are accessible and secure in your stairways, hallways, closets, and in the bathroom and toilet.
- Install non-skid mats on the bathroom floor in front of the bathtub, toilet, and sink. Secure your shower curtain rods into place because shower curtains sometimes serve as grab bars that can help break a fall.
- Adjust the height of beds and chairs to levels that will enable the elderly to get into and out of them easily and safely.
- Make sure the phone is accessible.
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