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Just one fall can cause a world of hurt
Falls can have bad consequences, and they're often preventable

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ILLUSTRATION BY EDEL TRIPP/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 11/16/2008

BY DONYA CURRIE

FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Anything can lead to a fall--icy sidewalks, ill-fitting shoes, cluttered basement stairs--and everyone has fallen down at least once in his life. Yet the older people get, the worse the consequences of a tumble can be.

"I wasn't watching where I was going," said Lois Stevens, 77, of Fredericksburg, who fell on a sidewalk outside a friend's house last March and broke her arm in three places. "I could feel myself going down, and I just said, 'Oh, God, help me.'"

Stevens, who underwent months of rehabilitative therapy and still doesn't have full use of her left arm, is one of the estimated 1.5 million older adults who suffer serious falls each year. Falls kill 4,700 elderly Americans yearly.

The Home Safety Council, a national nonprofit based in Washington, recently launched a nationwide education campaign to reduce the devastating impact of falls on Americans of all ages, noting that just 25 percent of adults have taken any steps to prevent falls.

Those steps can be as simple as taking a daily vitamin supplement, keeping a light on in the hallway leading to the bathroom, and getting rid of area rugs.

"Please don't be storing things on the floor," advises nurse practitioner Mary Beth Reckmeyer of Mary Washington Hospital's Senior Care Services.

She believes in routine, structure and consistency when it comes to helping older adults avoid falling at home.

FALLS AREN'T INEVITABLE

During health assessments, Reckmeyer said, she always asks her elderly patients, "Do you fall?"

"Sometimes the patient will say no, and their family member is standing behind them nodding yes," Reckmeyer said.

She and her colleagues try to remind the patients there's no shame in admitting that falling is a problem.

Many medications can cause dizziness. Some conditions, such as diabetes, can lead to numbness in the feet that makes it tough to move from one room to another, let alone across grocery-store aisles or along uneven sidewalks.

Physical and occupational therapy can help with many balance and strength issues that increase the risk of falls in the elderly, said Ralph Perez, rehab specialty director for Amedisys Home Health of Fredericksburg.

His company has developed a nationwide fall-prevention program called "Balanced for Life" that addresses problems in the inner ear that can cause vertigo, among other issues.


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HERE ARE A FEW WAYS TO CUT YOUR RISK OF FALLING:

Have a medical professional review the medications and supplements you're taking. Some can contribute to the risk of falling.

Have a secure banister or handrail on each side of all staircases.

Make sure all porches, hallways and stairwells are well-lit. Use night lights in hallways, stairwells and bathrooms.

Install grab bars in bath and shower stalls.

Keep the floor clean and free of clutter.

For additional fall-prevention advice, visit homesafetycouncil.org or mysafehome.org.