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Falling is dangerous - and preventable

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli counties.  Because September is fall prevention month, tonight I’d like to talk about why preventing falls is so important as we get older, and suggest some ways that can help you do this.

Did you know that in Montana one in every 20 hospitalizations among older adults is due to an unintentional fall?  That’s 1,660 hospitalizations a year!  The Montana Injury Prevention Program, a division of the Montana Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Bureau, focuses on issues like fall prevention because falling is one of the main reasons older adults lose their independence.  I know this as fact and from personal experience with my own mother.

My mother fell backwards at her church and sustained a head injury.  Because she was on Coumadin, a blood thinner that many older adults take, she ended up with a significant brain bleed.  None of her four children lived near her, so by the time the first of us arrived she had already undergone surgery.  The doctor told us the outcome would significantly change her life, and he was right. 

My mother went from being totally independent to having to rely on her children to manage her life.  We had to sell the family home, move her to Spokane to be near one of my sisters, and all become involved in managing her affairs.  All of us, including Mom, grieved the loss of her independence.  She lived in an assisted living facility but really needed nursing home level of care. It cost her most of her extensive savings over the seven years she survived.  Seeing how a single fall changed my mother’s entire life has made me determined to do my part to help older adults become aware of balance issues as we age, and what things we can do to minimize our risk of falling.

Injuries such as those resulting from a fall are not an inevitable part of aging.  But I suspect many of you have either fallen once or more this past year, or you know someone who has.  The good news is everyone can take some basic steps to help prevent falls.  They include:

  • Wear appropriate foot wear and corrective lenses to prevent slipping, tripping or falling down stairs.  Yes, ladies, you need to give up those high heels for good.  Time to let practicality override fashion.
  • Use handrails and make sure aisles and walkways are clear of clutter like magazines, clothes meant for the laundry room, shoes and throw rugs.  Put night lights in the hallways to give you clear vision to the bathroom, or any other area of the house you tend to go to at night.
  • Exercise regularly to increase strength and balance.  Several exercise programs have been proven to help with balance.  One is called “Stepping On,” another is Tai Chi.  These are great programs to gently start you on some helpful exercises and provide you with information about other ways to prevent falls. To find out what programs may be available in your area, call the Injury Prevention Program at 444-4126, or call the citizens advocate number, 1-800-332-2272, and ask to be transferred to the injury prevention program. 
  • Have an annual eye exam to assess your vision.  Very few of us don’t need glasses as we age. Sometimes we don’t even know how bad our sight really is until we have the exam.
  • Regularly review your prescriptions and over-the-counter medication with your health care provider to reduce side effects and interactions that may increase the risk for a fall.  You can consult your pharmacist, or use your once a year free annual wellness exam with your physician to discuss your medications.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to seriously look at strengthening your balance.  I am only 56, but I discovered in a ski conditioning class last year that my balance was already noticeably weaker than I remembered it being.   Now I’m taking extra measures to include balance strengthening exercises in my exercise regimen.
Falling can be a life changing event that might land you in an institution where you swore you never wanted to end up being.   If you want to stay at home for as long as possible, address your risk of falling and make a plan.  Remember the story of Humpty Dumpty . . .   all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again!  Don’t let that happen to you.

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services and as always, thanks for listening.

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