ParentCare » Vol. 36

Preventing cold weather falls & accidents

By Raquel Mullaney

The National Institutes of Health offers a sobering statistic related to falls among seniors: 1.6 million older adults go to the emergency room each year due to fall-related injuries.

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 increase significantly after 65, and dramatically for seniors 75 years and older.

Unfortunately, other statistics about seniors and fall-related injuries are alarming, as well. Falls are the leading cause of injury at home among Americans 65 years and older. According to the National Safety Council, each week falling seriously injures 300,000 Americans older than 65. Twenty to 30 percent of these falls lead to permanent disability. The news can even be worse: Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death among those 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 have an added risk for them.

Seniors are more likely to be on multiple medications, which can sometimes cause side affects that make falling easier.

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.

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.

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 ~ such as glaucoma or cataracts ~ early. Since these and similar conditions gradually get 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 medication side effects 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.

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 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.

Raquel Mullaney is president and co-owner with her husband, Robert, of one of the largest Comfort Keepers franchise operations in the U.S. Their business, based in Plymouth, Mass., is an active and accredited member of the Massachusetts Home Care Alliance. It’s been in operation for more than 10 years and has more than 200 caregivers who provide in-home personal and companion care, skilled nursing care and Alzheimer’s and memory care. From a variety of offices, they care for clients in the Worcester, Milford/Blackstone Valley and Metrowest areas in addition to the South Shore and Cape Cod. Mullaney, who also has experience in mental health services, served on the Plymouth Council on Aging board, served as president of the South Shore Women’s Business Network board of directors, served as co-chairman of the South Shore Alzheimer’s Partnership and is currently a member of the Jordan Hospital Philanthropy Committee. For more information regarding services, call (866) 888-5800.

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