Have you noticed your loved one looking a little unsteady on her feet while going about daily activities? It could be that their balance is changing, creating a risk of falling. Understanding fall prevention techniques can help seniors stay safe.
As the body ages, physical changes and health conditions can increase the risk of falls—the leading cause of injury among older adults. In 2014, adults age 65 and older experienced 29 million falls causing seven million injuries and costing an estimated $31 billion in annual Medicare costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To improve mobility and maintain steady footing, older adults need to examine why falls are happening.
“Most older adults really don’t recognize that their balance has changed and don’t make it a priority,” says Dr. Steven C. Castle, professor of medicine at the University of California’s David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles and clinical director of geriatrics at the VA Greater Los Angeles. “Once you recognize the problem and understand why your balance is off, then you can do something about it.”
Castle, who has conducted extensive research on fall prevention, offers these tips for caregivers to aid their loved ones in reducing the risk of falling and improving balance and mobility.
HumanGood: What should a caregiver do if their loved one experiences a fall or near-fall?
Castle: I would say a fall or near-fall should be viewed as an opportunity to better understand the causes for the changes in balance. Ask yourself: What were they trying to do? What symptoms do they have? What footwear or mobility aid—such as a walker or a cane—were they using? What was the lighting like? Were they wearing their bifocal glasses?
Most of the risk factors related to falls need to be assessed, like a drop in blood pressure while standing or partial loss of your visual field, to know whether they are contributing [to balance problems]. Injuries from one or more falls in a year warrant a detailed assessment by a doctor.
HumanGood: What are key risk factors that should be assessed?
Castle: Talk to your loved one’s doctor about their medications and how they interact with changes in balance. There are different classes of medications—such as sleep aids and those for anxiety and mood—that can affect older adults in various ways and have the most impact on balance. Second, review medications that affect the heart or blood pressure. Third, look at pain medications, such as neuropathic pain medications that can have an effect on balance.
There are also simple things older adults can do to prevent falls. Avoid walking in bare feet or socks. Walking barefoot or even in socks changes your balance and sets you back on your heels. If you suddenly change direction or stop abruptly, you are more likely to fall. Also, check your vision and the lighting within the home. These are all the easy things that older adults can do. This is the low-hanging fruit.
HumanGood: How can older adults improve their balance and mobility?
Castle: You need a good exercise program, one designed specifically to improve balance and keep you moving. You want a program that improves strength, coordination, flexibility and gait.
Tai chi is a very good exercise for improving balance. You’re shifting your weight while trying to maintain your alignment, so you become more aware of where you are in your space. Don’t look at the ground. Always look forward and identify your vertical targets for alignment.
Stay Steady With Exercise
Share the following exercises with your loved one to help them learn to strengthen the muscles needed for balance and mobility. Dr. Steven C. Castle recommends using a chair, wall or bar for support. In about 30 minutes, they can get through eight to 15 repetitions of each exercise.
Partial Squat: This exercise will help strengthen the legs. Slowly bend at the hips, pushing your bottom back as if you’re about to sit down. Then, rise up to return to a standing position. Straighten your arms in front of you and plant your heels to maintain balance.
Heel Raise: To make the calves stronger, stand next to a wall. Place your hands in front of you on the wall for support. Then, slowly raise your heels up and down.
Knee Flexion: This exercise is best when performed seated. Sit down in the middle of a chair and raise each leg (one at a time) about six inches off the ground. For more resistance, wear light ankle weights.
Hip Extension: Hold on to a wall or the back of a chair or support. Keep your knee straight and slowly raise your leg behind you.
Hip Abduction: Hold onto the back of a chair for support. Keeping your leg straight, slowly raise your leg to the side, away from the opposite leg. For more resistance, wrap resistance bands around your legs, just above the knees.