As we transition from summer to fall, don’t let a fear of falling keep you from being active. That’s the alliterative advice of Helen Lach, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing at Saint Louis University School of Nursing. And she should know! Lach specializes in gerontological nursing, and has studied ways to prevent falls for more than 20 years.
“While falls can cause problems, we want people to be both cautious and still maintain an active quality of life,” Lach said. “You can’t get rid of all of the risk in your life. But older adults need to maintain their strength, function and activity to the level they are able.”
Lach recently wrote a review article that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association that showed fear of falling is a significant problem in nursing homes.
“People in nursing homes tend to be frailer and have more health problems and physical limitations than older adults who are in the community,” Lach said.
“The fear of falling can stop some nursing home residents from doing anything, even participating in their own daily care. They become frozen in inactivity, which makes them depressed and bored. They get more out of shape, which creates more health problems that actually increase their risk of falling.”
Lach notes that the fear of falling is part of a cycle that can lead to a frailty and a downward spiral in health.
“As people do less, they become less able to engage in activities. They have difficulty moving around, and their gait and balance deteriorates. This puts them at an increased risk of falling, which unfortunately means the fear of falling actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
It’s important that nursing home staff members recognize that about half of residents have such a deep fear of falling that they limit their activities, and develop a way to assuage those fears. Exercise programs offered in a safe and supportive environment can be valuable in helping residents feel better – both physically and psychologically.
Senior adults who aren’t in long term care facilities also may need to confront their fear of falling. Tai Chi, walking, weight training and simple exercises to increase muscle strength – such as practicing sitting and standing to strengthen leg muscles or standing on one foot with a chair at arm’s reach can make a world of difference.
Good Advice for all of us.