Help Grandparents Prevent Falls at Home

A few simple steps can help preserve the health and well-being of an aging loved one. If you’re a grandparent and want to decrease your chance of falling at home, or if you want to make your home safer for a visiting grandparent, some relatively minor modifications will improve your home’s safety and reduce the risk of a potentially debilitating fall.

Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries (2000-2007) and the second leading cause of nonfatal injury hospitalizations (2004-2005) for North Carolina residents older than 65, according to Sharon Rhyne, health promotion manager for the Chronic Disease and Injury Section of the N.C. Division of Public Health. National data shows that 20 percent of older adults die within a year after a hip fracture, and that 25 percent are still in a nursing home one year later, Rhyne adds.

Modify the environment at home

Falls occur from both extrinsic and intrinsic factors, according to Teepa Snow, a local occupational therapist who specializes in dementia care and dementia education. Extrinsic factors include things that can be modified in the home, while intrinsic factors involve issues related to an individual’s specific abilities.

“Falls happen when there is a mismatch between the person’s skills and the environment’s demands,” Snow says. “So, we want to lower the risk factors in the environment and/or improve the person’s underlying abilities.”

Snow, who lectures and provides training at universities and organizations nationwide, recommends the following environmental changes:

– Install grab bars near the toilet and around the shower or bath stall in the bathroom. Some newer ones can be secured with suction or a wide base that do not require permanent installation.

– Clear clutter, area or throw rugs, pet sleeping spots and low obstacles from regular walking paths. If a person typically holds onto furniture while walking or forgets to use a walker or cane, consider placing heavy pieces of furniture that provide safe handholds nearby.

– Make sure lighting is bright but indirect, not glaring. Older adults typically need three times the illumination as young people.

– Raise the seat height in four main places around the home — toilets, living room and dining room chairs, and the bedroom — so the distance from the seat to the floor is greater than, or equal to, the length of the person’s leg from heel to the back of the knee.

– Place non-slip or moisture-absorbing mats in locations where water may collect or surfaces may become slippery, such as in or near bathtubs, sinks and exterior doors.

– Make sure there are sturdy, easy-to-hold rails on both sides of staircases inside and outside the home.

Pay attention to physical problems

You may also want to take measures to address other issues that cause falls. “Falls are multi-factorial,” Snow says. “In other words, there is usually more than one reason when folks fall.”

Problems with blood pressure, strength, coordination, balance, medication side effects, limited sight, disorientation or confusion, and most importantly, a history of other falls, are all factors that need to be checked or changed, according to Snow, who recommends the following:

– Work on balance and coordination through Tai Chi or yoga classes or by consulting a health-care professional.

– Have vision assessed and use sunglasses, brimmed hats and possibly an umbrella when going into sunny locations to reduce glare.

– Change positions slowly and hold onto grab bars when going from lying down to sitting up to standing to allow blood pressure to adjust to changes in demands on the system.

– Review all medications with a knowledgeable care provider to check for possible risks, side effects and interactions.

– Work on strength training and practice mobility skills. Practice helps the body respond automatically in the “right way” to recover from a trip or slip.

– Do an orientation run-through on regular walking paths — in both daylight and dark conditions — to look for possible problem areas.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also suggests that, along with creating a safer home, individuals begin a regular exercise program, have a health-care provider review all medicines, and have vision checked.

Cathy Downs lives in Cary with her family.

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