For many elderly people, the home can be a hazardous place. Homes with loose throw rugs, runners and mats, curled carpet edges, poor lighting, electrical cords, slippery uncarpeted floors and stairs can turn into booby traps.
Each year, falls are responsible for 11,000 deaths in the U.S. among people 65 and older. One in three people in the 65+ age group will take a tumble each year; 20 to 30 percent of them will suffer moderate to severe injuries that reduce their mobility and independence, and increase their risk of premature death, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Falls are a contributing factor in 40 percent of admissions to nursing homes.
Older people are more likely to have health problems, to be taking medications that can impair their balance, strength, or vision, and to have osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that produces brittleness and softness of the bones and makes older people susceptible to breaks. Hip fractures, a major complication of falls in the elderly, account for 300,000 hospitalizations annually and can be fatal.
A Yale School of Medicine study of people ages 72 and older living in and around New Haven, Conn., found that the most dangerous part of the house was the floor in living rooms, bedrooms and hallways. In nearly 80 percent of homes, the floor was filled with "little dangers" that are major hazards, such as throw rugs, carpet edges, small objects, electrical cords and slippery floors.
Stairways were the second most dangerous zone, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health. Night lights and light switches at the top and bottom of stairways were missing, as were handrails. Uneven steps spelled further trouble.
The bathroom was determined to be the most dangerous room. That's because tubs and showers usually lack nonskid mats or abrasive strips and grab bars. In addition to poor lighting, toilets were typically too wobbly or too low for an older person to rise from safely.
Kitchens were next on the list, with poor lighting, unstable step stools and storage areas that required an older person to reach high or bend low.
Preventing falls is key to avoiding injury from osteoporosis. Weak bones are slow to heal; even a minor fracture can disable an elderly person and lead to complications such as pneumonia or blood clots. To prevent falls, the American Federation for Aging Research offers the following advice for older people:
Do a safety check around your home
Get rid of rugs or cords that might trip you. Have someone install sturdy handrails on all stairways and grab bars in bathrooms. Cover stairs with lightly woven carpet or nonslip treads. Do not wax floors. Always clean up spills as soon as they happen. Avoid climbing and reaching up to high shelves. Use a step stool with handrails. Better yet, get someone to help you change light bulbs in the ceiling. If you are elderly, NEVER get on a ladder.
Take an exercise class that will increase your strength and improve your balance
Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta found the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi improved balance in older people after just a few weeks and cut the risk of falling nearly in half. Before taking any exercise class, be sure to get approval from your health care provider.
Check your medications
Any time you get a new prescription for any condition, ask your pharmacist or health care provider about side effects such as dizziness or blurred vision that may upset your balance. Drugs that can cause sleepiness, such as anti-anxiety medicines or narcotic pain medicines, can also be a problem. Drug interactions can cause loss of balance, so make sure you give your health care provider a list of all medicines you are on and ask if any new medicines could interact with what you are already taking.
Always wear low-heeled shoes with rubber soles for good traction. Never wear slippers, shoes with leather soles or high heels. Ask your health care provider about protective gear, such as gel-filled clothing and accessories that protect your limbs and hips in case you do fall.
If you drink, do so moderately. Not only does alcohol interfere with healthy bone formation, but drinking can make you unsteady and put you in danger of falling and fracturing your bones.