The statistics for fall-related injuries among the elderly are grim, enough so to instill fear in seniors who worry about losing their independence or suffering an irreversible catastrophe if they become wobbly on their feet.
That is why Falls Prevention Awareness Day — taking place Saturday, the first day of fall — is a national effort by advocates for healthy aging to show communities and the elderly that falls and fragility don’t have to be inevitable.
In Bradenton, the Manatee County Falls Prevention Coalition will host a health fair in recognition of Falls Prevention Awareness Day, with resources, demonstrations and talks about home modifications, physical conditions to be aware of, and how to improve balance or impairments and walk safely.
Information from podiatrists, physical therapists, eye doctors and other specialists will be available, plus balance testing, blood pressure checks and vision and hearing screenings.
“This is focused on the elderly … we want to make sure that they are aware of the resources and programs that can help,” said Susan Brzostowski of A Life at Home — Home Health Care, who led the effort to reactivate the Manatee Falls Prevention Coalition earlier this year.
According to Florida health statistics, falls are the leading cause of injuries for Floridians age 65 and older. Each year, more than 150,000 injuries that require seniors to seek emergency room care are caused by falls. Falls account for more than three-quarters of the broken bones in the elderly who are seen in ERs.
The results of a bad fall in the later decades of life can be catastrophic, especially in the event of a hip fracture, by causing a downward spiral in health. Becoming fearful about falling can cause seniors to become isolated when they won’t leave their homes, even though robust social connections are an important part of healthy aging.
There is plenty to be done to prevent falls, however, according to health experts. The National Council of Aging says it’s a myth that falls are a normal part of aging.
Falls aren’t limited to a single risk factor and preventing them involves behavioral changes, working around physical challenges and modifying obvious but simple risk factors such as throw rugs in homes.
Not taking medical conditions — and certain prescriptions — into account can cause trouble. So can limiting movements, failing to tell health professionals about conditions such as momentary instances of dizziness, or in the event of a tumble, not knowing how to fall in a way that lessens the chance of severe injuries.
Understanding how to work around medical problems is important, said Wanda Wellbrock, a nurse at Florida Home Health, a home health agency that includes a program that teaches better balance.
For instance, a common complication of diabetes and poor circulation is neuropathy, which causes nerve damage and can deaden feeling in the feet and legs.
“When you don’t feel your feet, you fall,” said Wellbrock. At Florida Home Health, physical therapists work with patients to teach them how to compensate, such as gripping the toes when standing up.
Seniors may be afraid to tell their doctors or families they have fallen or have balance problems, said Ana Guillermo, program director of Blake Medical Center’s H2U program, which offers classes and health seminars.
“They think ‘I’m not going to be able to live on my own’ and be told by their families that they need to go into assisted living,” said Guillermo.
She leads “A Matter of Balance,” an eight-week program at H2U that is limited to 12 people and taught in a confidential environment to make it easier for seniors to discuss their fears and physical problems. Her co-leader is Muriel Johnson, who is in her 90s and still line dances occasionally.
Nearly everyone who has enrolled in the class, typically taught once a quarter at H2U, had previously fallen at least once, said Guillermo.
“A Matter of Balance” focuses on behavioral changes as well as physical exercises. The exercises aren’t to build aerobic capacity or strength but to teach seniors how to move in ways that prevent falls and also help prevent serious injuries if a fall happens.
“The exercises aren’t anything out of the ordinary,” said Guillermo. They include ankle and wrist bends, rotating the head and bringing ears to the shoulders. Seniors are encouraged to do the exercises several times a day. The result is less rigidity in the body and less likelihood of tensing up in the event of a fall.
Making the body rigid when falling can be a natural reaction but raises risk of more severe injuries, said Guillermo.
Simple home modifications are discussed — remove throw rugs, install grab bars — as well as the importance of assessing factors such as medications.
“People may be taking many medications and we ask them, when was the last time you talked with your pharmacist?” said Guillermo.
Some medications have potential side effects that cause problems such as dizziness or interact in ways that affect balance. Pharmacists are the best professionals to talk with for this kind of information, she said.
Graduates of the class have gone on to take other classes at H2U that help promote balance and better physical health, such as tai chi and aquatic programs that ease arthritis.
Others report getting out of their homes more often, sitting less, and following strategies such as first striking with the heel when taking a step instead of shuffling feet.
According to the National Coalition on Aging, seniors can stay steady of their feet. Learn more by visiting the coalition’s website, www.ncoa.org/improve-health/falls-prevention, and the Manatee County Falls Prevention Coalition health fair to be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Trinity Lutheran Church, 2200 26th St. W., Bradenton.
Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.