If you’re a parent caregiver, then you’re responsible for the welfare of an older adult— you do everything you can to protect their health and safety. You take them to doctor’s appointments (or arrange for escorted transportation). You – or their visiting nurse – make sure they’re taking their prescribed medications. Perhaps you even get a home health aide to help them with errands, housekeeping, or personal care. But sometimes, the greatest danger to your loved one is something they know about and can prevent – if they’d only tell you.
We’re talking about falls. According to the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), millions of Americans aged 65 and over suffer falls every year. However, less than half of those affected ever tell anyone about it. Just one fall can put a person at risk for subsequent falls. So, as a caregiver, what can you do when your loved one tries to hide a fall?
Why do older adults fall?
First, it is helpful to identify the various causes of falls. Unfortunately, the causes of falls in older adults are numerous and pervasive. Sometimes, health conditions such peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage to extremities like the feet) put your loved one at an increased risk for falls. If your loved one has recently suffered a decline in health – due to a lengthy hospital stay, for instance, or a bout of pneumonia – their increased weakness and frailty can cause a fall.
Other times, prescription medications are to blame. Hundreds of medications are prescribed that can affect a person’s sense of balance – especially psychotropic drugs for illnesses like depression and anxiety. Additionally, if medications for high blood pressure aren’t monitored carefully, they can actually cause low blood pressure, which is also a contributing factor to falls.
The environment also plays a role in falls and fall prevention. Frayed rugs, ill-placed cords, and uneven surfaces can easily cause an older adult to trip. Removing these obstacles can go a long way toward keeping your loved one fall-free.
Why don’t older adults report falls?
Reporting falls can be difficult for older adults. Just like almost everyone else, older adults aren’t always comfortable acknowledging their own limitations or admitting they need help. Other times, they’re worried that they’ll bother their loved ones by reporting a fall. The desire to avoid being considered a “burden” to those they care about often prevents older adults from notifying their loved ones when they’ve hurt themselves. But possibly the biggest cause of unreported falls is that older adults believe it means they’ll lose their independence and that they won’t be able to live on their own anymore.
Fear of being forced into a nursing home or assisted living facility is very real for older adults who live at home. The upside of relocating to a nursing home is that there are many ways to identify and manage the fall risks they face there. On the other hand, moving to a different environment may even turn out to be unnecessary for your loved one. For instance, medication management by a visiting nurse could be helpful in monitoring prescriptions, determining which medications are causing balance issues, and adjusting them accordingly. Having a home health aide a few hours a week could keep the environment free of all obstacles that increase the risk of falls.
It’s important to speak with your loved ones and alleviate any fears they have about reporting falls. A patient’s physician should be informed immediately of any falls, so that the underlying causes can be identified and addressed. A conversation with the right doctor can actually comfort the patient and help them see that falls (like any other health condition) don’t have to end with disastrous or life-altering consequences.
Be honest and vigilant to prevent falls
Preventing falls in older adults is like staging a battle – you have to be on your guard and constantly vigilant. But the good news is that you don’t have to wage this war alone. Doctors, visiting nurses, and home health aides are all your allies. And don’t forget the patient themselves. By explaining to them how important fall prevention is – and allaying their fears about the consequences – you can protect your loved one from an avoidable tragedy.
If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.