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MURRAY — Falls are a leading cause of injury-related hospital admissions for people 65 and older. They often result in a lengthy recovery. An Intermountain emergency room doctor explains how to prevent them.
Lyn and Stephen Burningham love to share their harvest of butternut squash. They're also offering something else: "I'm going out soliciting railings for my neighbors," said Lyn Burningham, 76, who lives in Riverton. She's sharing a warning about falls. "(I) opened it (the door) and just flew out. I hit down against my car, and hit the car, and went to the ground."
Stephen Burningham, Lyn's husband, said, "I picked her head up off the cement and my hand came out all bloody."
One in four people over 65 falls each year. It's the leading cause of fatal injury in that age group, according to the National Council on Aging. More than half of Utahns 65 and older who were hospitalized from a fall had to go to residential care or a rehabilitation facility, say experts at Intermountain Healthcare. One out of every five falls leads to a serious injury like broken bones or head trauma. That can lead to depression, loss of mobility and independence. But doctors say many falls can be prevented.
"When the weather changes, we see a lot of falls. It seems to be at night, we see a lot of falls," said Dr. Spencer Proctor, emergency department chair at Intermountain Riverton Hospital.
Proctor says it's the most common injury he treats. "It's slick, there's ice. They fall. Maybe they're not wearing the proper shoes."
He advised exercising regularly to strengthen muscles and improve balance. Remove tripping hazards like rugs and toys, and be aware of small pets. Take extra precautions in unfamiliar environments. Get your vision and hearing checked every year. Also, install nightlights in low-light areas.
"If you had one or two of these (nightlights) in your hallway between your bedroom and your bathroom, that way when you get up to go to the bathroom at night, you're not tripping and falling over a rug or a misplaced slipper."
Lyn and Stephen Burningham added a railing to make their stairs safer. "As we get older, we sometimes do things so automatically, we don't think ahead," Lyn said.
And she's doing much better, secure in the knowledge that they're doing all they can to prevent another fall.
Doctors say it's a good idea to regularly review your medications with your doctor. Some combinations can cause dizziness and increase your risk of falling. More tips from Intermountain include:
- Talk to your family members or others close to you. Ask them to help you take simple steps to stay safe. An unsafe home increases the risk for falling for everyone, from the very young to the very old.
- It's safest to have uniform lighting in a room. Add lighting to dark areas. Hang lightweight curtains or shades to reduce glare.
- Paint a contrasting color on the top edge of all steps so you can see the stairs better. For example, use a light color paint on dark wood.
- Regularly review your medications with your doctor and/or pharmacist. This includes medications prescribed by all of your health care providers and any over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, supplements, or herbs you are using. Some combinations may cause side effects that increase dizziness or your risk of falling. Take your medications only as prescribed.
- Ask your doctor to assess your risk of falling. And make sure to share your history of any recent falls.
- Get up slowly after you sit or lie down. Wear shoes both inside and outside the house. Avoid going barefoot or just wearing socks or slippers.
- Get a "Falls Prevention Kit." Intermountain Riverton's emergency department is equipped with kits for those 65 years and older. The kit contains non-slip socks, night lights, information on Stepping On fall prevention courses, and My Mobility Plan from the CDC which has a step-by-step guide on things to do in your home to prevent falls.
- Take a Stepping On prevention course, Strength and Balance class or Tai Chi for Arthritis/Health class. The Utah Department of Health is offering free virtual classes. Tai Chi for Arthritis/Health classes incorporate exercises that improve muscular strength, flexibility and fitness. The Tai Chi for Arthritis/Health program also focuses on weight transference, which improves balance and prevents falls. You can sign up here.
See the Utah Falls Prevention Alliance for more information.