Henrietta Hay Column January 30, 2009

Following rules and exercise can prevent disastrous falls

I have found that I am more curious about things now than I was when I was younger. How do things work? Why do things happen?

Why are there so many falls? I mean people falls, not water falls. Mercury the Wonder Cat never falls. Of course he has four legs and they keep him steady. I, on the other hand, have only two and that makes me vulnerable. But after several million years of human development, one would expect that we might have solved the problem of balance on two legs.

Until I moved into the Commons I had not realized the tremendous damage that falls can do to men and women over 70. 

An article by John Leland in The New York Times says, “Once considered an inevitable part of aging, falls are now recognized as complex, often preventable events with multiple causes and consequences.”

Each year, 1.8 million Americans over age 65 are injured in falls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 433,000 are admitted to hospitals and one in five dies within a year.

Some people rebound from a fall as if the injury never happened.

In recent months, two good friends of mine have fallen and suffered serious injuries. One broke her hip and the other developed a severe hematoma on her hip. Both were hospitalized and both pretended the fall had not happened. They were back on their feet too soon, or so I thought. I was wrong. They are strong and each has a very positive attitude.

They are the exceptions.

But for most seniors, a fall often sets off serious conditions that may include pneumonia, depression, social isolation, infection and muscle loss.

So what can we do about it?

As one in the very high danger range I have a series of “rules,” which friends have made me promise to follow. When approaching a curb I have to stop for 2 seconds before stepping up or down. When I stand up, I must hold on to something solid until I am sure I am balanced. I cannot step on anything higher than the floor to reach a top shelf. I am allowed to bend over to rub Mercury’s stomach. There are many other rules, which I really try to follow. Being careful is essential.

Supervised physical exercise is recommended by many specialists. Such classes are offered in Grand Junction by many organizations. Here at the Commons, there is at least one every day, valuable for people with varying physical disabilities. These include people needing wheelchairs and walkers. And just plain walking is very valuable.

I have been sticking with my balance class for a long time. It stretches and strengthens arms and legs, and also the important core muscles in the torso. As a result, I discover a new muscle fairly often. Anything that will help me prevent falling is worth the pain.

The experts say that possible changes in medication and losing weight may also help prevent falls.

But my ultimate example of balance was not in an “over 70” resident, but in a young, enthusiastic server here. She came into the dining room balancing a full tray of food on one hand above her head. As I watched her, oops, she tripped and started down. But she caught herself, straightened up and proceeded calmly to the table with the food.

And not a drop spilled.  Ah, youth!

Even as the brain needs constant exercise, so does the body. And while “limber” is, to say the least, different at 90 than it is at 20 — it is worth working for.

Happy exercise.



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