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How Older Adults Can Beat the Fear of Falling

Fear of falling among older adults

Do not let the fear of falling ruin your life. That is the message from a new St. Louis University (SLU) School of Nursing report, which offers older adults and their loved ones tips on how to beat the fear of falling and enjoy life as much as possible.

Take steps to stop falling

When toddlers are learning to walk, they frequently take spills that land them on their bottom, and after a few tears, they are generally eager to get up and move on. Not so with older adults, however, for whom a fall is often more serious, and so fear of falling can cause them to stop engaging in life as a way to protect themselves.

According to Helen Lach, PhD, a gerontological nursing specialist and associate professor of nursing at SLU, it is possible for older adults to stay active while also taking steps to prevent falls. One segment that is especially susceptible to falls is the nursing home population.

Lach noted that nursing home residents tend to be more frail and have more physical limitations and health conditions than their peers who live in the community. Thus their fear of falling “can stop some nursing home residents from doing anything, even participating in their own daily care.”

As with people of any age, but especially the elderly, failure to keep physically active leads to a reduction in muscle strength and tone, which is accompanied by a deterioration in balance and coordination, as well as depression, boredom, and overall poorer health. In other words, fear of falling can actually increase a person’s risk of falling.

When dealing with residents of nursing homes, staff members need to recognize that many of the elderly refuse to be active because they are afraid of falling. Lach encourages facilities to offer exercise programs that provide residents with a safe way to prevent physical deterioration and improve their strength and balance so they will be better able to participate in daily activities to the best of their ability.

Also Read: Dancing Is Good Medicine for Seniors

Tips on how to beat fear of falling

Beyond nursing home environments, here are a few tips on how older adults can fight the fear of falling.

Keep walking: Vertical and walking: that’s how one elderly woman responds to those who ask how she is. Regular walking is a wonderful way to help build strength, stay in shape, support circulation and bone health, and maintain overall health. Older adults who are afraid to walk should consider getting some support, such as a cane or walker, and walk with a friend. Wearing the right shoes is also important, as is choosing a safe (flat, unobstructed) walking surface.

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Tai chi: Research shows that tai chi is an effective, safe way for older adults to improve balance, flexibility, and strength. One reason some older adults experience balance problems is the presence of osteoarthritis of the knees, and tai chi has been shown to significantly improve knee pain and physical function.

Weight training: It’s never too late to begin weight training, even if the weights are only half a pound. Use of light hand weights three to four times a week for 10 minutes (or a program recommended by a healthcare provider) can significantly improve muscle strength in the arms. A program that includes use of light ankle weights while in a seated position (or other exercises recommended by a healthcare professional) also can be beneficial for improving leg strength.

Exercise to music: Many people say exercising is boring, but some studies have found that music can be a great motivator and provide other benefits as well. A six-month study among older adults found that exercising to music improved balance and gait among those who participated in the program when compared with controls.

More specifically, adults who exercised to music showed an improvement in walking speed and stride length when compared with adults who did not. In addition, exercising to music results in a reduced number of falls and fractures when compared with controls.

Fewer medications. An update to the guidelines to prevent falls among older adults, issued by the American Geriatrics Society and the British Geriatric Society, recommends that doctors review the medications taken by older adults and reduce, change, or eliminate those that can contribute to falls and loss of balance.

Address gait and balance problems. Some older adults believe any difficulties they have with walking and balance are just signs of old age and so they don’t talk to their doctor about these challenges. Individuals may be experiencing such problems because of undiagnosed medical issues, including cataracts (which affect vision and thus can impact gait and balance), heart disease, diabetes, or low blood pressure.

Environmental risks: Much of the fear of falling can be alleviated if a person’s home environment is evaluated for fall risks, such as use of throw rugs, exposed cords, poorly lighted areas, narrow passages, and steps without railings. Correcting these and other details can greatly improve safety at home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-third of adults age 65 and older fall each year. Such falls can lead to hip fractures, head trauma, and an increased risk of dying early. Over the past decades, the death rates from falls among older adults have risen significantly.

You can reduce the fear of falling and help improve your quality of life for yourself or a loved one. Take steps today to stop the risk of falling among older adults.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Lach HW, Parsons JL. Impact of fear of falling in long term care: an integrative review. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association 2013; 14(8): 573

Image: Morguefile