With the holiday season upon us, we look forward to the traditions that make this time of year so special, as well as the excitement of getting together with family and friends. Yet with all the joy we find during the holidays, it’s also a season fraught with danger for seniors who face greater risks of falling for one reason or another:
Climbing on stools or step ladders to bring down the good china or decorations.
Tripping over an extension cord that has been brought out for the Christmas lights.
Getting in and out of cars to go to restaurants and visit relatives.
Walking on icy pathways and parking lots.
Being a little tipsy from having an extra drink or two.
Reaching to put an ornament or an angel high on a Christmas tree.
If you’re getting advanced in years, these are just a few common occurrences that can put you on the floor or the ground in a heartbeat, and make you wish the angel on your tree is watching over you somehow.
For additional causes of falls and how to avoid them, refer back to our article on fall prevention posted on October 9. More recently, on November 6 to be exact, we took a look at how to pick yourself up from a fall, which is much easier said than done. Today, we wrap up our series on falls with the most important topic of all: how to recover from a fall that has caused a physical injury and possibly psychological damage as well.
Thanks to the Baby Boomer generation steadily getting older, many seniors are approaching their late 70s, which means they are well beyond the age when a fall merely results in a few minor scrapes and bruises. And they’re fast approaching the age of 80 when more than half of all people experience a fall each year and those often lead to fractures and even death. Consider these alarming statistics related to falling:
Approximately 9,500 deaths of older Americans are associated with falls each year.
Falls are the leading cause of death from injury among people 65 and older, and the risk of falls increases proportionately with age.
Two-thirds of those who fall will do so again within six months.
When an older person falls, his or her hospital stays are almost twice as long as those of older patients who are admitted for any other reason.
Among people aged 85 and older, one out of every 10 falls results in a hip fracture.
One-fourth of seniors who fracture a hip from a fall will die within six months of the injury. A broken hip itself is rarely fatal, but long periods confined to a bed or being inactive leads to other complications, including depression and pneumonia.
While falls are a major fear for older adults, often signaling the onset of serious physical concerns and a potential loss of independence, a fall doesn’t have to be life-threatening or even life-altering. If you or a loved has recently experienced a fall, here are some things to keep in mind to help with a full recovery.
Understand that falls will happen
Despite taking preventive measures, seniors are afflicted by falls more often than you may realize and the number reported in recent years is on the rise. Falls can occur for a number of reasons, from a defective shoe to cognitive impairment, weather conditions or even a simple distraction. The important thing to understand is that falls aren’t necessarily a physical failure, and there’s no need to get too discouraged if one does happen.
Fitness is a significant factor
The New York Times determined that, not surprisingly, one of the biggest indicators of how well an older adult could be expected to recover after a fall was directly tied to his or her level of physical ability. Those who were physically active were far more likely to recover more fully and quickly than those who are typically inactive.
Brenda Olivarez, Life Enrichment Director at Sunshine’s Garden Way Retirement Community in Eugene, Oregon, concurs.
“The best thing is to be a very active person beforehand and do a lot of bone-loading exercises for your legs,” she says. “But if the person is frail and does not stay on top of their health, unfortunately, they could easily pass away from a broken hip or other serious fracture.”
Consequently, an important element of recovery for any senior who has fallen is to improve their level of physical fitness as much as possible through regular exercise. Even if an individual is living with a disability, regular activity and physical therapy can help maximize functioning, which can be a huge factor in post-fall recovering. All Sunshine Retirement communities have regular group programs that can enhance your fitness, many specifically designed for victims of falls, including balance and muscle strength exercises.
Break down psychological barriers with living space changes
While falls are the leading cause of physical injury among seniors, much of the damage they do is psychological. Even seniors who were relatively fit and physically independent prior to their slip can suffer a huge blow to self-confidence and leave them feeling unsure about living on their own.
One way to combat a sudden lack of confidence is to create a safe space during the recovery process. This can involve everything from rearranging furniture to allow more support while moving around to widening walkways throughout the home. Brenda Olivarez offers this helpful list to those who have survived a fall:
Make sure your home is safe in case you come home with a walker or another device to help you move around. Have your family make more room so that the trip hazards are not as high.
Get rid of rugs! Or at least make sure they are new and do not have holes in them.
If you have dark hallways, get night lights so that you can see where you are going when you get up in the night for the bathroom.
Install handrails/grab bars in the bathroom and shower, and add a shower chair until you are stable enough to stand on the wet tile. Have someone install “grip strip” on the shower floor to make it less slippery.
Make sure the handrails along steps and stairways are secure and sturdy.
Have a cell phone or an emergency alert necklace in case another emergency happens and you need help immediately.
Not only can these suggestions reduce the chance of additional falls during the delicate recovery period, they can give you the confidence to make physical recovery faster and easier.
Healing the break
Unless you’re lucky enough to simply walk away with some mild bruising, chances are you’ll require some type of treatment and recovery period. Many people end up with hip, rib, shoulder, ankle, foot or wrist fractures. Typically, a broken bone will need to be kept straight and immobile while it heals in order to fuse together correctly. That’s fine in theory, but in practice, it can make things difficult, especially if you are someone who is used to being active. Before you try to go back to your old routine, consult with your doctor or therapist and stick with their prescribed timetable.
Living with a cast
If you’ve broken a bone in your hand or foot, it’s likely you’ll have a cast applied, and mobility will almost certainly become an issue. Rather than pushing your body through the pain, it’s important to adjust your lifestyle to account for the cast or splint. Spinal injuries may require a therapeutic brace or corset to keep the spine steady while you heal, and that can dramatically decrease your regular range of motion.
Here are some good tips to help you get through your time with your cast:
Unless your foot cast is designed for walking, don’t put your body weight on it.
Keep swelling down by propping up the limb when sitting.
Practice toning the muscles around and under the cast with physio-approved exercises.
Patience is a virtue
You can expect to be in a cast or splint for at least six weeks, but a break can take significantly longer to heal depending on the bone and the nature of the fracture. Listen to your doctor and your body. While there are average guidelines for healing a break, there is no absolute standard timeline because everybody is different. If you’re feeling pain and fatigue, these are signs that you might be pushing your body too hard.
With the right help, you can begin regaining your strength well before the cast comes off. Your doctor will definitely provide a rehabilitation program for after surgery or the setting of the bone. Therapists and specialists will help you with targeted mobility and strengthening exercises, and the staff at your retirement community will surely provide recovery support as well.
Continuing your rehab
Rehab and recovery under medical supervision is important, but your improvement will grind to a halt if you don’t keep up the strengthening on your own. Hip fractures are among the most common osteoporosis-related injuries, and while they can be difficult to heal, a study out of Boston University found that patients recovering from hip surgery who did specific exercises at home enjoyed significantly more function and mobility.
How yoga can help
Along with rebuilding muscle, improving your balance will definitely help your recovery. Beginning a gentle yoga routine could be your best bet for a better balance. Don’t worry about the challenging postures that your granddaughter can do. Yoga instructors at most Sunshine Retirement communities will focus on slow and deliberate movements to nurture your balance on both sides of your body. Many of our instructors have experience with rehabilitation and can offer close and careful guidance through your practice, even starting you off with Chair Yoga.
Learning from your fall
After you’ve had a bad fall, you’ll naturally be a bit more cautious. You might be reluctant to go out in bad weather or cover longer distances on your own. However, strengthening muscles and improving your cardiovascular fitness are vital parts of the rehabilitation process and will absolutely improve your longevity. So whatever you do, don’t swear off exercise and become a couch potato.
“Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help – no matter or how big or small,” says Brenda. “Make sure all your future movements are safe and steady to avoid another accident. And above all, NEVER STOP MOVING and DO NOT LIVE IN FEAR. The more fear you move with, the higher the chances of you falling again. Keep engaging with everyone around you as you had before.”
While the fall season suggests that the end of the year is approaching, the time of year that could cause a fall doesn’t have to be the end of the road for you or your loved ones. We hope this series will help you stay on your feet and enjoy many happy holiday seasons to come.