Every hour, there are two deaths and 251 emergency room visits that can be attributed to falls, most of which occur inside or immediately outside of the home. With staggering numbers like this, it’s worth asking: What can you do to reduce falls in your home?
First, it’s important to understand your risk factors for falls. Certain medical conditions, like diabetes, arthritis, stroke, cardiovascular conditions, or neurological diseases, can increase your risk of falling. So, too, can changes in vision or sensation, dizziness, and leg or foot weakness. For this reason, it’s important to know and understand the common side effects of each medication you’re taking, and to always consult your physician before taking any herbal or over-the-counter medication. If you are affected by medical conditions or taking multiple medications, discuss your falls risk with your physician.
Taking stock of your environment can also help reduce your risk for falls. Make simple modifications by installing banisters and handrails on stairs, fixing areas of uneven terrain, and using motion sensor lights in your driveway and doorway. It’s especially important to treat icy or snowy sidewalks during winter, too. Inside your home, make sure you have clear pathways for walking by removing clutter and moving furniture toward the walls and out of walkways. Throw rugs and carpet runners should be removed or secured, and commonly-used items should be placed within reach to minimize the need for climbing on a step stool.
The bathroom can be a particularly dangerous area—especially when the floor or your feet are wet. Avoid locking the bathroom door and always have a way to call for help when in the bathroom. Use a non-slip mat or non-skid tape in tubs and showers. You may also want to install grab bars and purchase a shower chair or bench.
Another great (and fun) way to reduce your risk of falling is to stay active. Exercise can improve your strength, cardiac fitness, balance and reaction times. There are exercise programs designed to fit every level of fitness, from walking programs to gym classes to chair aerobics. Ask a health care provider for recommendations for community fitness programs or DVD workouts you can use at home.
Despite your best efforts, falls can still happen. The first step in recovering from a fall is to stay calm. If you feel dizzy or confused, hit your head or believe you are injured in any way, call 911 immediately. If you live alone or are alone in the house for any part of the day, you need a way to call for help in case you are unable to get up from a fall. Consider a cell phone, cordless phone, or medical alert system that you can wear as a necklace or bracelet. Some systems can automatically detect a fall and send help even if you are unable to press in the button in case of loss of consciousness or confusion. If you live alone it may also be a good idea to have a family member or neighbor who can call and check on you at a set time each day and who knows to contact help if they don’t hear from you.
Knowing your risk factors, making home modifications and staying active are three great ways to prevent falls. It is important to discuss any concerns with your doctors and other health care providers. And make sure you have a way to call for help if you do fall. Hopefully you will never need it, but it is always a good idea to have a plan.
Dana Hughes is a physical therapist at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital.