Former skier and hiker Jim Young of Bellingham was still active at 89 when a sudden fall changed his life.
The retired teacher and school district PR director was getting into bed when he slipped on a throw rug and found himself on the floor with a painful broken hip. Unfortunately for seniors, it’s an all too common occurrence.
“It happened in an instant,” Young recalls. “I don’t even remember how.”
His wife, Lillian, heard him moaning. Young had to have a new hip. Then, as frequently happens to seniors confined to bed, pneumonia set in.
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“We nearly lost him,” says Lillian, who sat by his bedside each day gently feeding him ice cubes and soup. “It was a miracle he made it.”
Falls send 2 million seniors to emergency rooms each year. The damage can be crippling, even fatal. Falls can be life-changers, because many injured seniors end up in smaller apartments or in nursing care facilities.
But falls are not inevitable as people age. Regular exercise, drug monitoring, home improvements, and basic caution can go a long way toward a healthier, longer and more active life for seniors.
Household changes reduce risk of falls
Jim Young’s monthlong stay at Shuksan Healthcare Center in Bellingham included physical therapy and an assessment of his living situation. Before his release back to his split-level home, changes had to be made.
Rugs were removed, nightlights were plugged in, a walk-in shower replaced the tub, handlebars were installed, and a stair-lift was added. Young now gets around with a walker, and he carries a fall-monitoring button.
The top two locations for falls are on stairs, and in tubs and showers.
Cindi Landreth, vice president, A-1 Builders & Adaptations Design Studio
Home physical therapy was prescribed, so a caregiver moved in. At 90, Young can still enjoy his home, cat, backyard bird feeder, and the familiarity of his bedroom and bathroom. Lillian reminds him to be careful, because another fall could end their independence.
That’s why physical changes to a house or apartment can be so critical.
“The top two locations for falls are on stairs, and in tubs and showers,” says Cindi Landreth, vice president of A-1 Builders & Adaptations Design Studio in Bellingham.
She and her husband, Rick Dubrow, designed their home for “aging in place,” with “no-stairs” access to the main level, and an upper-level bedroom that could house a caregiver. Their shower has large sliding doors and grab bars. They have wood floors throughout, plenty of natural light, and strategically located lighting fixtures.
“Lighting is so important,” Landreth says. “I tripped and fell over the open dishwasher door because I hadn’t turned on a light. I fell right onto silverware that was sticking straight up and whacked my shin hard enough that it has taken a year to heal.”
Increased strength helps
In addition to lighting, good reflexes and fitness also helps.
“Balance and strength are important to prevent falls,” says Tammy Bennett, director of healthy living at Whatcom Family YMCA and an instructor in the SilverSneakers exercise program for seniors.
The social interaction seems as important as the exercise, in that it keeps them coming back.
Tammy Bennett, instructor for SilverSneakers exercise classes
From stretches and yoga, to water fitness, aerobics and strength building, SilverSneakers classes offer a variety of exercises. Bennett teaches several of the classes, which blend lively music and movement with hand-held weights, elastic tubing and a chair to increase strength and range of motion.
Two to three dozen seniors age 60 to 95 work out in a large exercise room. Bennett cheers them on, telling stories and jokes, and talking about people in the class.
“They notice when someone is missing and everyone gets to know everyone,” Bennett says. “The social interaction seems as important as the exercise, in that it keeps them coming back.”
Exercise leads to stronger bones, improved circulation and better overall health. “If they do fall, they heal faster,” Bennett says.
“Most come to us with a goal, to play with grandkids or walk more,” she says. “We had a gentleman who helped sail a boat back from Hawaii. He said he couldn’t have done it without our classes. People want to be able to enjoy their lives.”