Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be Weeble Wobbles?
Okay, maybe not egg-shaped with heavy-weighted nether regions. But the “don’t fall down” part.
True, it’s cute when babies toddle and suddenly plunk down on their diaper-padded bottoms. And football players don’t seem to mind finding themselves fallen at the bottom of the heap—as long as they’re still holding the ball.
But the rest of us?
My nose still hurts from my face plant two years ago when I went running at night.
Falling is no fun.
And the older we get? Dr. Juergen Bludau (in Dr. Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal) suggests that falling is the “single most serious threat” to senior citizens.
Broken arms, broken legs, broken hip, concussion…walker, wheelchair… They’re all possible frustrations from falling.
- Mom, who was living by herself, can’t get out and needs help to do basic things like cooking and cleaning.
- Dad, living in senior apartments, needs a month in rehab.
- Or one of them in assisted living now needs a nursing home.
No, not every fall is catastrophic.
(Read more on which ones are in “She's Fallen—Can She Get Up? How to Know When One Fall Is Too Many”)
But each fall has the potential to at least set your parents back for a time, and at worst, could rob them of the ability to walk all together.
In other words, falling puts them in danger of losing what freedom they have.
However, what if we could cut the risk of their falling by 88%?
According to Dr. Bludau, (Chief Geriatrician, [i.e. Doctor of Older Adult Health]), we can.
And it comes down to three tell-tale clues.
What’s Knocking Mom Off Her Feet—and NOT in a Good Way
Dr. Bludau says aging seniors have a 12% chance of falling sometime in the next year.
Not an exciting number, but not horrid.
The reasons aren’t hard to imagine: slipping on ice, tripping over a rug, getting shoes tangled with someone’s toys… Heavens, anyone can struggle with those.
But add three risk factors to the mix, and your parents’ chances of falling this year jump 100%.
Yes, you read that right.
So how do you detect these factors?
- Check their feet
- Check their muscles
- Check their meds
Let’s take them one at a time.
1. Check Their Feet: Those Barking Dogs Could Trip Them Up
We depend a lot on those two extremities at the end of our legs. Just think how often they need rubbing at the end of the day.
But as we get older, bending down gets harder. So if Mom and Dad can’t reach them, they might not be taking care of them.
Do they have
- Sores between the toes?
- Bunions? Thick callouses?
- In-grown nails or unclipped altogether?
- Swollen toes, arches, ankles, soles?
- Shoes that don’t fit right? (too tight, too loose, heels worn down on one side more than the other)
- Flat feet with the toes spread wide? (often termed “splayed feet”)
To stay upright, we need a solid footing. If it’s not well-cared for… Well, any of these seemingly little foot issues can cause a domino effect—with Mom or Dad being the domino.
The Solution: Fixing Their Foothold
The good news? While healthy feet are huge for having good balance, getting healthy feet doesn’t have to be hard.
- Plan regular visits to a podiatrist. (Dr. Bludau recommended once a month for one of his patients.)
- Pamper Mom and Dad with spa pedicures. (Make it a regular date for your parents together…or a monthly mother/daughter moment *wink*)
- Pick up a bubbly footbath to do pedicures without having to leave home. Many of these machines come with attached pumice stones, so callouses can be gently massaged away without any backs breaking.
- Google a local shoe store that can help your parents find well-fitting footwear. (Sometimes these places advertise licensed “pedorthists,” a fancy way of saying professionals who know how to choose the right shoe for the right foot…and the left one.)
Trying any or all of these ideas will help Mom and Dad keep their feet firmly on the ground—unless they feel like doing the two-step. Which brings us to the next factor.
2. Check Their Muscles: What Makes ’em Go Weak at the Knees… or Hips…or Arms
Taking a firm stand requires strength—in their core (abs and back) and in their arms, legs, and hips.
So how can you make sure Mom and Dad can carry their own weight?
- Avoid “Couching Backsides”
When we sit, our glutes go all mushy. The muscles don’t have to work, and they stop “firing.” That’s a bad thing.
Meanwhile, the hip flexors (the spot where your tummy meets your legs) stay scrunched and tight. Also bad.
If your parents want a steady posture, those muscles need to know it. It’s true for all of us: We don’t use it? We lose it.
Have Mom and Dad calculate how much time they spend up and moving versus plopped down.
- “Look, Ma, No Hands”
Physical therapists may check how many times Mom and Dad can stand up in 30 seconds, a great test if you know what to look for.
But for an easy at-home test, simply watch if your parents need to use their arms to push themselves out of a chair.
If they can stand up straight, no hands needed, they’re using good muscle strength. Now that’s a good thing!
- “Fuel for the Fire”
You know that new word, “Hangry?” (When you’re so hungry, you get angry and don’t act like yourself.)
Muscles feel it, too.
The last thing your parents want is for those muscles to go on strike. Are they eating enough to maintain their strength?
And while food keeps those muscles energized, water is a double-whammy: It keeps muscles from cramping, and it stops dizziness. Yes, we usually call that feeling “light-headed,” but we all know it usually leads to the head dropping like a lead balloon.
You guessed it: bad.
Are they drinking enough to stay hydrated? (Big clue: if their lips and tongue are dry, they’re probably parched.)
The Solution: Help Them Flex Their Muscles
Mom and Dad don’t need to be on their feet all the time. They deserve quiet moments sitting in their favorite chairs throughout the day.
But it shouldn’t be all day.
Help them find some place to exercise.
- Many gyms have special senior classes, including swimming, yoga, aerobics, and weights—which not only strengthen muscles, but bones, too.
- If you don’t want to spend money on a gym, try an indoor mall. They often open early for “Silver Sneaker” clubs to foot it around their walkways.
- Find an online senior aerobics class.
- Or, of course, consider that two-step. Google a local ballroom dance studio and encourage Mom and Dad to cut a rug once a week.
But remember that the stomach is a muscle, too. And if it isn’t working, you’re handicapping the rest of the muscles.
Make sure Mom and Dad eat enough good calories.
- Fill the pantry and fridge with ingredients for easy healthy meals and snacks. For those moments when they just don’t want to cook, try full-meal nutrition drinks like Ensure.
- Appetites may not be as strong as they once were, but if Mom or Dad are losing weight, low calorie/ low cholesterol food might not be the best here. Ask the doctor.
- Pick up a cool water bottle that will make sipping throughout the day easy. (“More sipping, less slipping”)
- Finally, encourage them to invite people over to eat with them. As Dr. Bludau says, “Eating alone is not very stimulating.”
You’ve checked their footing, their feasting, and the muscles in-between. But food isn’t the only thing that goes into their mouths that factors into falls.
It’s time to pull out the reading glasses.
3. Check Their Meds: In This Case, FOUR “Is the Magic Number”
Medications can be lifesavers, regulating blood pressure, blood volume, diabetes… We are blessed to have healing drugs and antibiotics that allow us to live longer and more comfortably.
However, sometimes those medicines don’t play well together.
And according to Dr. Bludau, falling is a lot more likely if your parents are taking four or more prescriptions.
Each drug has its own side effects, but add them together, and you get new math, like 3+1=10.
- Two cause dizziness? They’ll compound, and now Mom and Dad are really seeing birdies.
- One causes dehydration? Remember, dehydration worsens dizziness.
- And they’re on an antibiotic? That can cause Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs), which can cause confusion and dizziness—not to mention an urgency, i.e. rushing, to get to the bathroom. A sure recipe for falls.
The Solution: Read the Fine Print
You know those papers you get with each prescription outlining all the side effects? It’s your new reading material.
- See the word “diuretic?” (found with many blood pressure medicines, heart medications, and of course water pills). Taking those, your parents are going to need to drink even more water. (Diuretic = dehydration = dizziness)
- If it’s for blood pressure, etc., ask the doctor if there’s a different brand that doesn’t
- Make a list of all the medicines your parents are using and ask the doctor if there are any that could be dropped—or maybe change to a new one that could take the place of two.
- Multiple doctors giving you prescriptions? Stick to one pharmacist. That way someone’s helping you keep track of possible interactions—After all, that fine print is pretty
Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes—All Helping Your Parents Stand Tall
While we may not be able to prevent every fall, we can cut them down by almost 90%. Keeping track of their feet, their muscles, and their medicines can really help your parents stay balanced.
Such a simple thing, and yet that could mean they’re much more likely to maintain the independence they’re enjoying now.
Something to sing—and dance—about.
Guest post written by Elizabeth Daghfal
If you'd like to see other topics related to assisted living and caring for the elderly, click here.
(To read about Dr. Bludau’s work directly, check out Dr. Atul Gawande book Being Mortal, pp. 39-41.)