09/23/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Clearing the Way, On National Falls Prevention Day and Week

As soon as Anthony Walker stepped into Mr. Williams's apartment six months ago, he knew things weren't as safe as they should be. As a certified home health aide with a licensed home care agency serving homebound seniors in one of our nation's largest metropolitan areas, Anthony has seen his share of risky situations for people who are less than sure on their feet.

With his first look, Anthony clearly saw that his new client had a clutter problem -- something that might not seem like a big issue, but, in fact, can be quite dangerous. For Mr. Williams, who uses both a wheelchair and a walker to get around, clutter can create a dangerous obstacle course that could make him vulnerable to serious injury.

Recognizing this as a common problem, Anthony immediately began working to clear away the piles of magazines and newspapers and other items that were blocking the walkable pathways in the apartment. He also helped to ensure that the wheelchair Mr. Williams uses every day, along with the other ambulatory aids he needs to get about, were in safe working condition and that Mr. Williams knew how to properly use them. Today, says Anthony, "Mr. Williams is feeling much safer, armed with the knowledge that he is doing what he needs to do to reduce his chances of taking a bad fall."

The numbers tell the story: according to the CDC, 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 and more than half of all adults over the age of 85 will suffer a serious fall this year, with 70 percent of these falls occurring at home. Every 17 seconds in America, an elderly person is taken to the emergency room because of a fall, making falls the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries in older adults.

Keeping seniors safe on their feet at home, and when they're out and about, is an important concern for family caregivers and America's growing population of folks over 65. At Partners in Care, where Anthony and I work, and many organizations throughout New York State and the U.S. will recognize National Falls Awareness Day (September 23) this year during Falls Prevention Week (September 21-27). We consider these times to be great opportunities for sharing important tips and guidelines with the families we serve. Here are a few of the reminders we'll be sharing this month:

How You Can Stay Strong on Your Feet

It's with these statistics in mind that our Partners in Care Home Health Aides receive special training in how to best coach their patients in fall prevention. Each person's situation of course is different, and it is important to speak with your doctor about your risk for falling. The following guidelines from the National Council on Aging provide good reminders to help seniors avoid taking a tumble.

  • Enroll in a good exercise program designed to build your balance, strength, and flexibility.
  • Contact your local agency on aging or community health organization for referrals.
  • Make sure you have sturdy, well-fitting shoes with non-slip soles and that you wear them inside as well as out.
  • Fall-proof your home by removing tripping hazards, adding higher-wattage bulbs or new light fixtures in areas that are poorly lit, making sure all stairways are safely navigable with strong railings, installing grab bars as needed in key areas such as the bathtub, securing loose rugs or carpets and electrical cords, and drying wet surfaces immediately.
  • Ask your doctor if he or she can assess your risk of falling, and be sure to share any history of recent falls you may have.
  • Review your medications with your doctor as well, to identify any side effects that might increase your risk of falling, and be sure to take medications only as prescribed.
  • Get your vision and hearing checked annually, and update your eyeglass prescription as needed.
  • Enlist the support of family members in your fall prevention efforts.
Watch For These Warning Signs

It's also important to be alert to physical changes associated with aging that indicate you or a loved one may be at increased risk of falling -- and to take steps to address them. Common warning signs include weakness in the legs, walking and balance problems, vision problems, depression, cognitive impairment, dizziness, muscle weakness, and urinary incontinence (which can result in more nighttime trips to the bathroom).

Other factors that can also increase falling risk for people of any age include rushing around the home or getting up from bed, taking four or more medications simultaneously, medication or prescription changes, or incorrect use of ambulatory aids such as walkers, canes and scooters.

One of the most significant factors in assessing risk is a previous history of falls. If you or a loved one suffers even a minor slip or near fall, be mindful and mention it to your doctor or a health professional. A seemingly non-dramatic stumble could be a clear signal that a serious review of fall risk is needed, as well as a fall prevention strategy.

Seniors can also benefit from coaching on fall prevention from a trained health professional. "There is a fear of falling with almost every older individual I've worked with," says Anthony, "and if someone has tripped or fallen previously, that fear can be much worse." The key to overcoming this, he adds, to "attack it" with education and repetition. Anthony is part of a multi-disciplinary home care team that includes physical therapists, nurses and other clinicians trained to provide education that helps homebound seniors navigate their danger spots safely.

While it is important to speak with a physician when there is a concern about risk for falls, the following resources can be very helpful: