Winter months put many older people in danger

CHICAGO—Avoiding a fall is a serious challenge for senior citizens. Thirty percent of seniors living in the community fall each year. Falls represent a major source of injury and death in older people; about 10,000 older adults die each year in the United States as a result of falling.

Especially during winter, with its snow and icy conditions, falls pose a serious health threat to older people. To help improve safety and well-being for seniors, the Illinois Council on Long Term Care, an association of nursing home professionals, offers its “Top Ten List” for preventing falls.

“We want to share our suggestions with community seniors to reduce their risk of injury and death,” said Susan Duda-Gardiner, director of clinical services for the Illinois Council. “Illinois nursing home professionals have extensive experience in helping seniors reduce their risk for falls and have important safety information to share.”

Here are the Illinois Council’s top 10 recommendations for preventing falls:

10. Consider medication side effects—Seniors should talk with their doctors about the side effects of their medications and whether they affect coordination, balance and blood pressure. Whenever possible, doctors should reduce or eliminate those medications that increase the risk of falling, such as sedatives and tranquilizers.

9. Exercise regularly—A regular exercise program helps to improve strength, muscle tone, flexibility and postural stability, all crucial to fall prevention. Seniors who are inactive are at the greatest risk of falling. Consult with a doctor or physical therapist to choose those exercises that are safest and most effective.

8. Wear appropriate footwear—Seniors should wear lightweight gym shoes rather than heavy, clumsy athletic shoes. All footwear should be sturdy and well-fitted, with low heels and non-slip soles. Make sure that hems on pants, long skirts and robes are not torn or too long.

7. Use mobility aids properly—Seniors who require mobility aids such as canes, walkers and wheelchairs should learn how to use them properly and make sure they are in good condition. Don’t overload yourself with packages, as this will make these mobility aids useless.

6. Watch out for environmental hazards—Keep floors free from litter and clutter. Clean up spills immediately. Keep electrical cords away from walking paths. Secure small rugs and carpets with rubber, non-skid padding. Make sure that chairs are pushed up tightly against tables, and that dresser drawers are shut completely.

5. Make the bathroom safe—The bathroom is a prime location for falls. Install sturdy grab bars in tub and toilet areas. Put rubber matting at the bottom of the tub. Make sure bathroom floors are not wet. Consider using a shower chair if bathing is difficult.

4. Be extra careful during winter—During the winter, use extreme caution when walking outdoors on wet or icy pavement. Be sure to clean up any water puddles that are brought in from the outside. Keep your home warm, as prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can lead to dizziness and falls.

3. Think about vision issues—Seniors need twice as much illumination as younger adults to see properly. Keep rooms, hallways and stairways well lit. Use nightlights in bedrooms, bathrooms and other dim areas. Have your vision checked regularly and wear your eyeglasses as much as possible. Use color contrast in the home whenever possible. Consider marking the edge of each stair in your staircase if you have depth perception difficulties.

2. Take your time—Make sure to take your time and be very careful in getting from place to place. Use caution in getting up too quickly after eating, lying down or resting. Low blood pressure may cause dizziness at these times. Try to avoid lifting things, especially heavy items, as this can lead to a fall.

1. Make fall prevention a top priority—Falls represent a huge challenge for seniors that can lead to reduced independence, serious injury and even death. Don’t wait to think about fall prevention until it is too late. Talk with your doctor or physical therapist about fall prevention techniques. Check around your home regularly for hazards. Constantly be aware of your surroundings and use caution at all times.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2006, issue

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