Aging Matters: Fall risks can be reduced with good planning, communication

Falls are the number one cause of injuries among older adults. They also are very common, affecting one in three adults over age 60 each year.

Fall-related injuries may be as minor as a small bump or as serious as a broken hip. Serious injuries can lead to surgery, extensive therapy and even death. But even minor falls can be serious. An injury-free fall can increase the risk of subsequent, more serious, falls.

Many who have fallen become fearful. They may reduce their activity level, thinking that will lower their risk of another fall. So they may stay inside more. They may rely on others to run errands, or they may replace physical activities like walking with sedentary ones like watching television. These changes increase their fall risk.

Sedentary activities contribute to weaker muscle and bone strength. Weak muscles and bones increase the risk of additional falls.

Falls are not inevitable. In fact, there are many things people can do to reduce current and future fall risks. In Maui, we have many local organizations that offer fall prevention resources. Consider the following tips:

* Learn about risks. On Friday, the Maui County Office on Aging, Maui Falls Prevention Consortium, and Kaunoa Senior Center will present the half-day workshop “The Latest in Falls Prevention.” Speakers include exercise, physical therapy, home modification and home assessment professionals. Registration deadline is Wednesday. To learn more, contact Kaunoa Services at 270-7308.

Stay physically active. Effective fall-prevention exercise programs include balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance training. EnhanceFitness is a local example of a program that includes each of these components. Maui County Office on Aging introduced the program to Maui last year and coordinates programs at various sites throughout the island. The program is designed for adults with varying abilities and fitness levels. For additional information, contact the Maui County Office on Aging at 270-7774.

* Review medications. Some medication side effects or interactions impact an individual’s balance. Many pharmacies offer free medication consultations to identify potential issues. To find out if your pharmacy offers this service, contact it today.

* See your doctor. Certain physical and visual disorders can increase the risk of falling. Optometrists or ophthalmologists and primary care physicians can identify and discuss disorders that affect balance, strength and sight. In preparation for these appointments, make notes about previous falls and periods of dizziness or lightheadedness.

* Manage chronic conditions. Diabetes, osteoporosis, blood pressure and other chronic conditions can influence stability and risk of fractures and falls. In all health care appointments, discuss medication and lifestyle strategies to manage these conditions.

* Wear sturdy shoes. Sandals, heels and slippers all create tripping hazards. Consider purchasing shoes that fit properly, provide adequate support and have nonskid soles. A good pair of shoes is an important safety investment.

* Make a home inspection. Boxes, loose rugs, slick flooring and areas with low lighting all create stumbling hazards in the home. Ask a friend or family member to identify potential dangers. A second or third pair of eyes will spot hazards you may miss. Excellent home inspection material is available online from the Mayo Clinic and the National Institute on Aging. Local information and assistance is also available through Project Dana and the Maui County Office on Aging.

* Use assistive devices. When used properly, assistive devices increase a person’s safety and independence. Common examples include grab bars in showers and tubs, handrails in stairways or hallways, shower chairs, walkers, and canes. Many devices are inexpensive and simple to install. Others may be covered by health insurance.

With planning and good communication, the fall risks can be minimized. The average cost of a fall in Hawaii is $27,000. But cost is just a small part of the picture. The true cost of a fall may include pain and suffering, loss of independence and disruption of activities.

If you or someone you love is over age 60, consider discussing and developing a personal and/or family risk management plan. It may mean the difference between life and death.

* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters will cover topics of interest to the aging Maui community and will appear on the third Sunday of each month.