I read the Cap Times' recent article “Losing their footing: more Wisconsin seniors are drinking, falling, and dying” with great interest — but sadly, not shock or surprise. In addition to alcohol use, medications, vision problems, and even the wrong shoes can be major factors in an older adult having a fall. With one in four people age 65 or older falling every year, the huge scope of the falls problem may be the biggest surprise.
Older adults often laugh off a fall to avoid embarrassment or explain it away as klutzy, but the consequences of a fall are anything but funny. For people age 65 or older, injuries from falls are the single biggest cause of accidental death nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Wisconsin, the death rate for that group is more than double the national average. Also not funny.
But that’s not all. Falls are responsible for serious injuries that are painful and costly. The average hospital charge due to injuries from a fall was $34,854 in 2014. Hospital and emergency department charges for falls that year totaled well over $700 million in the state.
And there’s more! Even falls without an injury make the older adult worry that he or she might fall again. This leads to a loss of confidence, depression, isolation, and physical decline that puts the person at an even greater risk for falls.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, contrary to what many believe, falls are not a normal part of aging. They can be prevented. But you can’t prevent something if you’re not aware it’s a problem.
There are two things we recommend older adults do. First, next time you visit your doctor, ask for a falls risk assessment to determine your risk of a fall and what interventions may help. You may require physical therapy, need a medication review, or be a great candidate for my next suggestion.
If you are at risk for a fall, have already had a fall, or are just worried about having a fall, take a Stepping On class. Stepping On is a falls prevention program that helps older adults learn how to avoid falls. The program meets once a week for seven weeks and has been researched and proven to reduce falls by 30 percent. People who take the program learn simple balance and strength exercises, strategies for safely navigating both inside and outside the home, and how to assess their home for safety hazards and make needed changes. But what participants like best are the visits from community safety professionals and experts like physical therapists, pharmacists, and vision specialists who talk about how medications, vision problems, and footwear impact their risk of a fall and what they can do to decrease their risk.
Over 13,000 older adults in Wisconsin have already participated in Stepping On in communities all over Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging and partners like Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County, county and tribal aging offices, Aging & Disability Resource Centers, and other community organizations offer the program at low or no cost to participants.
Stepping On can’t fix the heartbreaking issue of alcohol abuse in older adults. We encourage anyone who recognizes they have a problem to get professional help. But Stepping On does offer a proven solution to help keep people who fear a fall or are at risk of a fall from having a fall. Find a Stepping On workshop by visiting the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging — wihealthyaging.org — and clicking on Find a Workshop.
Betsy Abramson is executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, a nonprofit clearinghouse for evidence-based health promotion programs. The institute’s mission is to help the state’s citizens live longer, healthier lives through researched and proven programs that prevent and manage illness, injury, and disease. Information at wihealthyaging.org or 608-243-5690.
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