The "F" Word: Yes it can happen to you.

person walking down stairs

The ‘F’ word: YES, it can happen to you

– By Monica Marquis

Every 10 minutes someone over 55 goes to the hospital because of it,
and every 30 minutes an older adult is admitted to hospital due to the “f” word…

It can happen anywhere, but most often it happens in your own home. It can make your life miserable, your spouse’s life miserable and place unnecessary demands on your family. It is the number one reason people get admitted to long term care. It can even kill you.

(Yes, I am avoiding telling you what it is because some researchers say you are not interested in the “f” word, and you will not pay attention!)

I believe that adults over 55 are interested in the “f’ word, and they will do things every day to prevent it. So what is this thing that can change your life forever – or even end it? A fall, yes a fall.

A fall is defined as “unintentionally coming to rest on the ground, floor or other lower level with or without an injury”. Have you ever been walking along and suddenly realize that you need to sit down right now? If so, that would be a fall. You may or may not hurt yourself. But know this: if you fall once, you’re twice as likely to fall again, and as you age your risk for injury increases. In fact, falls are the leading cause of death due to injury for those over 80.

The good news is, falls are predictable and preventable. The problem is that there are many risk factors for falling, few people understand them, and people believe it will not happen to them. In addition, there is a myth that ‘as we age it is normal to fall’. All these things keep people from taking action to prevent a fall.

It is not normal to fall as we age

Falling is often a symptom, or signal, telling you that something is wrong in the body. If you are unsteady on your feet, losing your balance, and falling – you need to see your doctor as soon as possible. Fear and or complacency are the enemy. Do not let your fear of a diagnosis, or your belief that nothing can be done, keep you from the doctor. If you are dizzy, tired, or have some other symptom – tell your doctor and make sure they figure out why this is happening to you. There are many possible reasons and just as many possible cures to get you back on track.

Anyone can fall, but as you age the risk for injury increases and the time it takes to heal increases. If you know your risk factors, you can take action to reduce your risk of falling. Here are the risk factors and what you can do to reduce your risk:

Risk taking – can mean climbing up on unstable furniture, climbing up too high (ask yourself will I break something if I fall from this height?) or reaching for something out of your reach, lifting things that are too heavy, not paying attention or underestimating your surroundings. Know your limitations and think before taking that risk.

Footwear – non slip soles, and shoes that fit properly are important. Avoid shoe fads – remember those earth shoes? Wear the right shoes/boots for the weather and carry a small bag of kitty litter to sprinkle on ice.

Blood pressure – postural hypotension is an excessive drop in blood pressure that occurs when a person stands up or is in an upright position. This causes dizziness, light-headedness and loss of consciousness. Have your doctor check you for this, and if you have it, you need to rise slowly from a seated or laying down position. If you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, rise slowly, and take your time.

Medications – four or more puts you at risk for a fall. And some medications put you directly at risk. Ask your pharmacist for a Medscheck. This is a comprehensive review of all your medications including over the counter drugs. This service is covered by OHIP. The pharmacist will check the dosages, and how the drugs interact with each other. The pharmacist will then speak with your doctor about any medications that put you at risk, and may make some recommendations to reduce your risk.

Vision – have your eyes checked every 2 years. If you need glasses, get them. Poor vision has been blamed for many falls. If you wear bifocals consider changing your prescription and using reading glasses. Bifocals cause problems when walking and trying to look at the ground.

Home Safety – think ‘trip hazard’. The most common are scatter rugs. Tape them down or get rid of them altogether! Another hazard is clutter on the stairs: keep walkways in your home clear of things you may step on. Extension cords (even pets) underfoot also can become trip hazards. Clear snow and ice from your walkways, or ask a neighbour to help.

Bathroom – the most common place for a fall. Put a night light in the bathroom and in the hall so you can find your way in the dark. Consider installing grab bars in the bathroom now, before you need them! You want them there when you are slipping or dizzy so you can prevent a fall. Put a non-slip mat in your shower stall, and be careful in the bathroom.

Leg Strength – Make sure you can get up from a chair without pushing yourself up with your arms. This is a very important functional movement. Does your toilet have arms for you to push off of? Do you want arms on your toilet? I don’t think so. It is easy to increase your strength and our bodies adapt quickly. To increase your leg strength, practice getting up from a chair: start with 5 repetitions and increase to 15. Once you reach 15 repetitions, progress to doing the exercise without using your arms. Cross your arms in front of your chest and rise out of the chair – progress to 15 repetitions a day.

Bones – Are your bones strong and healthy? Do you have Osteoporosis? Weak bones break very easily. Know your bones: ask your doctor for a bone density test.

Nutrition – You may have heard this over and over, but drink water throughout the day, as dehydration makes you dizzy. Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D to maintain bone health.

Incontinence – frequent trips to the bathroom are an obvious risk, however you can do something about this, and avoiding liquids is not the answer! There is help. Ask your doctor to refer you to the appropriate services.

The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have a fall. Take action today to reduce your risk of having a life changing event – because YES, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.

Monica Marquis is the Fall Prevention Coordinator for the Mississauga Halton LHIN catchment area. She is working with the Mississauga Halton Falls Prevention Initiative (30 organizations) to implement their framework for falls prevention. She is based out of Trillium Health Centre and can be reached at 647-290-0235 or via email [email protected]  (This article was originally published in Silver and Gold magazine.)