Falls can have devastating consequences for an older adult, including disability, loss of independence, pain, and even death. In fact, falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among seniors, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
When seniors fall it can also have a detrimental effect on their emotional health. All too often after taking a tumble, older adults limit their activities and social engagements in an attempt to avoid falling again, running the risk of depression and social isolation. Not only that this strategy can backfire on a physical level since avoiding activity can result in a loss of muscle strength and balance, which actually increases the chance of falling again.
Helping Seniors Avoid Falls
Thankfully, a number of initiatives have been set up to try and decrease the number of falls in seniors.
For instance, the STRIDE study, the nation’s largest investigation of how to prevent injuries from falling, is recruiting 6,000 patients at 10 clinical sites to test the effectiveness of “falls care managers” who help patients enroll in falls prevention programs and addresses problems that can increase the risk of falling.
As well, the National Council on Aging (NCOA), which introduced the 2015 Falls Free National Action Plan last July, lists a number of evidence-based fall prevention programs on its website, like the Stay Active and Independent for Life (SAIL), which provides exercises that can be done standing or sitting.
Creating Awareness as Well as Strength
In addition to providing balance and strength exercises, some falls prevention programs include an education component. For instance, the eight-week Matter of Balance program also teaches participants how to change their environment to reduce fall risk factors (for example, cleaning up spills right away).
As well, the Stepping On program educates seniors about how to choose safe footwear and the role of vision in keeping balance in addition to providing exercises.
Incidentally, the American version of the Stepping On program, which originated in Australia, has been shown to achieve a 50% reduction in falls. Similarly, the Otago Exercise Program, a series of 17 strength and balance exercises which was developed in New Zealand, reduces falls between 35-40%. (Unlike the other programs mentioned here, Otago is delivered by a physical therapist in a senior’s home for six months to a year.)
Using Eastern Traditions
A couple of the fall-prevention programs have roots in Eastern traditions, such as Tai Chi for Arthritis for Fall Prevention. As this Tai Chi for Fall Prevention article points out, Tai Chi movements are slow, smooth and continuous, which “calm the mind, helping to reduce falls resulting from sudden movements that lead to significant blood pressure drop.” The article also notes that Tai chi practitioners are mindful of transferring weight with each step, which helps to improve mobility, coordination and balance.
There’s also the Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance program, which is built around seven modified individual Tai Ji Quan forms. This 24-week program aims to improve postural stability, movement symmetry and coordination, range of motion and lower-extremity strength and develop skills that can be transferred to daily activities such as reaching, moving from sit-to-stand, and walking.
Finally, if you want to improve your balance on your own, here are some sample exercises from the National Institute on Aging.
Do you have any other suggestions for helping seniors avoid falls? Share your tips with us in the comments below.