Brrr..the first touch of a fast approaching winter can be felt as you walk outside in the morning or when you pull the shades for the evening. You can see your breath when you scrape the frost of your car’s windshield. For seniors and the elderly, this means the increase risk for falls and serious injuries is just around the corner.
Each year, one in every three adults age 65 and older falls. A variety of studies have shown a high correlation between cold weather and an increase in falls among older adults, too. The chances for falls in colder weather increases significantly after age 65, and dramatically for seniors 75 years and older.
Senior Fall Prevention: Why It Is Important
Unfortunately, other statistics about seniors and fall-related injuries are alarming as well. Falls are the leading cause of injury at home among Canadian 65 years and older. Falls accounted for 59% of all emergency visits and 79% of hospitalizations due to injury. Older Canadians are nine times more likely to suffer an injury from a fall leading to hospitalization and even death.
Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among those age 75 and older.
Once cold weather comes, seniors should be aware of their increased risk for falls. Snow and ice is a danger for anyone who ventures outdoors in winter, but it is especially unsafe for older adults for a variety of reasons:
- As seniors age, sensation in their feet may decline, especially if they have arthritis, diabetes, poor circulation, or complications from a stroke. A decrease in sensation can affect proper balance. For this reason, venturing outdoors in cold weather can cause an added risk for them.
- Seniors are more likely to be on multiple medications, which can sometimes cause side effects that make falling easier such as mild dementia or dizziness.
- Many seniors walk with an unsteady gait compared to when they were younger. Also, if seniors don’t practice good exercise habits, muscles can lose strength and elasticity, thereby leaving older adults more susceptible to falls.
Year Around Health: The Key To Preventing Falls In Elders
Those seniors who work hard to maintain and even increase their flexibility, strength, balance and endurance are less likely to fall. Occupational therapists recommend routine exercise year round so senior adults stay healthy. Even something as simple as a healthy diet can reduce your chance of falling year round—and especially—in wintertime.
Another important healthy habit that can help prevent falls is getting routine eye exams. If you are wearing the wrong prescription eyewear, your chance of falling is much greater. Taking care of your eyes as you get older can help catch problems early such as glaucoma or cataracts. Since these and similar conditions get gradually worse, it’s easy to miss how serious they have become over time.
Finally maintaining good relationships with your physician and pharmacist are important for year round health so side affects from medication that could lead to falls are monitored and prevented. Keep in mind that cold and flu remedies often contain ingredients that make some people drowsy.
Habits That Help Prevent Senior Falls
Perhaps the adage, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is so popular because it’s true. The best time to get prepared for winter is long before it arrives.
Senior care experts recommend these preventive safety tips to prevent falls:
- Maintain your exercise habits as the weather starts getting colder. It’s hard to stay motivated to exercise when you’re homebound. But lots of indoor exercises can keep you fit when you can’t venture out. Stand at a counter and do knee-bends, or practice balancing on one leg (always near something you can grab if necessary). March in place, or stand up from a couch, sit down and stand again to help keep legs strong. Consult with a doctor or exercise specialist to help you develop a more complete indoor exercise program.
- If you feel fatigued stay at home. Getting out can help cure the winter blues, but know and don’t push your limits. Going out when you’re not at your best is putting yourself at risk for a dangerous fall. Consider utilizing delivery services from pharmacies or grocery stores.
- Have a safety plan. Carry a cell phone or other alert device so you can get help quickly in the event of a fall. Don’t use assistive devices without practicing at home. Rely on others. Let them know where you are, and ask yourself, “If I fell here, what would I do?” This will remove some of the panic that might set in if you do fall. Make sure outdoor light bulbs are working before winter starts. Consider adding some additional light sources outside your home. Hire someone ahead of time to shovel snow and salt your sidewalks.
- Wear the right clothing. You might be used to getting dressed up for church and other favorite activities, but in the winter, stick to rubber-soled shoes with a non-skid surface. Bundle up but make sure you can move easily and see in all directions. Do some light stretching before you venture out; it will make you physically more able to prevent a fall.
- Don’t assume anything. Blacktop may look just wet, but cold weather causes black ice to form fast. Don’t be tempted to think you can make a quick trip to the mailbox in your indoor shoes. Sometimes grassy areas can be less slick than road surfaces.
- Look for products that could keep you safe. You can find ideas by visiting websites, at orthopedic stores and through your visiting nurse or physician. Shoe chains are an example. These products fit on the bottom of shoes, adding traction for walking outdoors in snow and ice.
Unfortunately some studies indicate that falls among seniors are on the rise. Keeping all these tips and information in mind can help prevent you from being among those senior adults who sustain an injury by falling in winter.
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- “Cold Weather Tips for Seniors,” by Chase Patton, an Appalachian Agency for Senior Citizens news article, www.aasc.org.
- “Monday Top Tips: Stay Safe this Holiday Season; Tips to Prevent Falls in Winter Weather, by Rupali Joshi for Hospital for Special Surgery, www.hss.edu.
- “Falls Prevention: A practical guide for preventing falls,” by the editors of the Cornwall Council, www.cornwall.gov.uk.
- “4 Simple Steps to Prevent Falling: Improve Your Body Balance with Exercise,” About.com Senior Living
- “Trauma and Falls in the Elderly,” by Miriam T. Ashkenasy, M.D. and Todd C. Rothenhaus, M.D., for the Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America, www.emed.theclinics.com.