Fear of falling: a growing issue for baby boomers

Updated: Nov. 18, 2019 at 9:37 PM CST
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LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) -Each year millions of people 65 and older fall and the CDC says by 2030 there will be seven fall deaths every hour.

In my case, I dislocated my elbow after tripping over a makeup bag, of all things, in my own room and had to take an ambulance to the hospital.

I remember the EMT telling the hospital my arm was deformed. I couldn't see it, but it sure hurt.

My doctor looks at an x-ray of my dislocated elbow saying, “This bone's supposed to go over here, you can see the whole thing shifted."

Dr. George Trappey, orthopaedic surgeon, explains what I did to myself.

“When you fell on your outstretched hand you dislocated the two joints in your elbow. Basically, both of the joints in your elbow came out of socket and that’s what you felt,” he said.

He was amazed I didn't break anything. He kept saying, "for a 63-year-old woman to have an injury this serious, and no fractures…"

I always try to impress.

Typically, he explains, women my age usually have broken bones with such an injury.

“The typical injury pattern is one of a dislocation with fractures and thankfully, for whatever reason, your bones must be harder than most middle aged women because they didn't break," he said.

Thankfully, they were able to put me back together. Still, it was still a costly and serious injury.

And barely six months later, it happened again. I didn’t see a curb and, yikes! I was on the ground with skinned knees and hands and a sprained ankle. At least i didn’t hit my head.

And it seems to get worse as you get older. Harriet Green is 82. I met her at Snap Fitness Center.

"In a two or three month period, I lost five friends from falls. They fell and hit their heads, fell and hit something or fell and broke something. One lady was walking out of a building, and there was a small rise and she stepped off of it and missed it and fell and hit her head. Another man climbed a ladder, fell off that ladder,” said Green.

And that convinced Green to make a habit of hitting the gym where she works to increase strength, improve balance and lessen the severity of falls.

"I have fallen recently twice within the last month and I got myself up just fine. I didn't break anything. I wasn't happy. I felt like a fool, but I was fine," said Green.

Occupational therapist and trainer at Snap Fitness, Lisa Foret, advises people to work on improving balance, agility and function before they develop a problem.

“I like to do a lot of hip flexion exercises for them to be able to pick their legs up, because we have to do that all in the community, at home, getting in and out of the bed, out of the tub, climbing over curbs. Also I like to do a lot of foot and ankle activities because a lot of times people trip over their toes. They don’t pick their feet up. After we get older we kind of start to shuffle our gait,” she said.

Foret knows falls can be devastating.

"Then, people become fearful. They start avoiding things, they start avoiding going out in public. They become afraid of falling. So, it can really change your whole life," said Foret.

Since sometimes falls cannot be prevented, she also demonstrates how to try to get up.

She recommends clients undergo an assessment by John Foret who specializes in muscle function. He explains muscle activation which is stimulating inactive muscles can correct imbalances.

"If you have an ankle issue, and you've got stability issues, everywhere. Like if I tested your trunk and spine muscles and went on through all of these from positional testing we will identify what muscles are not creating support. So, if you're taking a step and you've got an ankle issues and you've got all this instability up the chain, the chances of you healing your ankle are going to be slower, because you've got all these other muscles not providing support," said Foret.

Besides feeling better, he says efficiency and mobility improve and he says you're never too old.

"You can't just assume that you're going to get better. You have to attack it. Just like a world class athlete trains specifically for a specific goal. Most people when they're 80 have a lot of the same goals as a 20-year old athlete might have: balance, stability, flexibility and how do you achieve all that? You have to train it. If you want to get stronger, you have to participate in some activity that targets that," he said.

The CDC says falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury and that more than 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of falls, most often because of a head injury or hip fracture.

Dr. Trappey says hip fractures are often the beginning of serious decline for older people.

"The consequences of lying in bed, we know people get bed sores and get pneumonia and things like that from lying in bed. So, that's why we fix them so we can get them up and get them moving and get them back to life. People's lungs were made to be upright and people are not made to lie in one position," said Trappey.

At FYZICAL Therapy and Balance Center, their motto is, “Love your life.”

“Just because you have a bum knee, a bum ankle doesn’t mean that you just have to suck it up and deal with the impairment that that creates,” explains physical therapist Emery DeSonier.

She says so many baby boomers are affected.

“They call it the silver tsunami, the beginning of the baby boomers as they age. They say it’s going to be so many that the seniors that will be baby boomers aging are going to be greater in number than those being born now,” said DeSonier.

Physical therapist Floyd Saltzman recommends starting with an evaluation to find out why I seem to be falling.

"It could be something with visual, it could be perception, you may need to see an eye doctor as far as coming up and down curbs, you're not picking your foot up enough, you're hitting the curb. That's going to cause you to stumble. Some people just have a cluttered up home these days. But if you can find out the root of the problem. Is it muscular- skeletal. Is it an inner ear or vestibular issue that's causing you to be off balance. All those systems, including muscular-skeletal system have to work together," said Saltzman.

Their observations from just a handful of sample tests surprised me.

“I can tell you, with your speed, when you go fast, you tighten up everything because you don’t have good stability,” said DeSonier.

"Everytime you turn to the right you end up having like a wobble and a stagger you can't keep smooth and fluid and then also you veer the entire time too,” she said.

And then we went bungee jumping. No not really. They put me in a harness to demonstrate ways to prevents falls during therapy to improve strength and balance. I found out there are things that can be done to sort of reprogram ourselves to improve coordination we may have lost as we got older.

Also, DeSonier suggested I find some better shoes, instead of the little ballet slippers I find so comfortable.

“If it’s sliding down the back of your foot you’re going to activate your toes upwards like this or crunch them to try to hold your shoe on. You’re going to lose energy and create a balance impairment because you’re not able to hit the ground the right way,” she said.

Another tip, Dr. Trappey suggests people slow down a bit.

"In our society, I think people are in such a hurry to get from point A to point B, I think slowing down and taking your time, especially if you're kind of prone to being unbalanced and unstable would go a long way to prevent falls," he said.

And be observant. Make home safer by getting rid of tripping hazards. Put railings where needed. Make sure lighting is bright. Ask for help when needed and don’t get on a ladder if you tend to fall.

And Saltzman says, keep moving.

“Keep all of your muscles as strong as you can. Stay as flexible and mobile as you are. Don’t stop moving," he said.

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