Fear (and the high cost) of falling

My husband was face down on the floor of the breakfast room, stretched below the table with one hand resting beside a chair he had pushed into the corner. As I came up from the garage, returning from a long opera just before midnight, he called out, hoping to spare me from alarm or a heart attack of my own. This is the sort of scene that tends to cause alarm at any age. According to an article in last Sunday’s New York Times, a similar scene occurs with alarming frequency: more than one-third of people ages 65 or older fall each year, writes Steve Lohr in an “Unboxed” feature, “Watch the Walk and Prevent a Fall.”

In our recent case, all was soon well. My husband had lost his balance while setting dinner on our not-too-sturdy table, and more or less slid to the floor. Still recovering from spinal fusion surgery 8 months earlier, he had done everything possible not to break anything — old bones or new rods and bolts that is; he wasn’t worried about the china — as he went down. But once down, getting back up was not an easy assingment. You know those awful “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” ads? Believe them. He tried shoving a chair into the corner to gain traction, but soon realized there was not enough strength in his lower legs to do the job, and decided just to wait. (Some people do carry cell phones… but that’s another story.) At 6’3″ and over 200 pounds, Bud outweighs me approximately two to one, so my getting him up was, we already knew, not an option. Happily we have a neighbor who seldom goes to bed early. Once he came over and the three of us strategized a while we were able to set my husband upright again. More specifically, John and Bud accomplished the deed; I supervised. Bud was tired and hungry, but otherwise fine.

Most of the falling elderly are not so lucky. About one fall in 10 results in serious injury such as a hip fracture, according to the Times story. Some 20 percent of older adult victims of hip fractures die within a year. If that weren’t enough to get one’s attention, reporter Lohr writes that “the estimated economic cost of falls ranges widely, up to $75 billion a year in the United States, if fall-related home care and assisted living costs are added to medical expenses.”

The last time I fractured my ankle, which I tend to do with dismaying frequency, I grumbled to a friend about “that dumb accident.” There are no smart accidents, she replied. (I was running late, and carrying a very large empty computer box down the stairs.) And this is a good thing to keep in mind. Somewhere not far past the age of 50 (I throw that in for all those weekend soccer-playing dads) bone breakage gets easier and healing begins to take longer. Somewhere a little farther along in the aging process, falling takes over from dumb accidents as #1 cause.

“Watch the Walk and Prevent a Fall” focuses on early research, backed by the National Institute on Aging, into the relationship between activity patterns and falls. “Fall prevention also promises to be part of an emerging — and potentially large — worldwide industry  of helping older people live independently in their homes longer,” Lohr writes. New technologies such as sensors that track behavioral and activity patterns will play growing roles in fall prevention, along with customized exercise programs and close attention to the role of medications.

Considering the risks and the cost, fall prevention may fast claim serious attention. But for now, especially if you’re over 65: get up slowly, watch your balance, and be careful setting your dinner plate down on a wobbly table.

6 responses

  1. Fran: I know that bone breakage isn’t the only risk with falling, but what do you think about the recent bone-building drugs for older people with osteoporosis? I’ve read that they can tremendously minimize the risk of fractures.

    • That’s a great thing to mention, Katie. They clearly make a difference and hopefully will get more and more attention. I hesitate to mention any specific one, since side effects keep being found and I’m no drug expert. But since my breast cancer, which required going off of one bone-building drug, I am now taking another. My oncologist prescribed it (it’s also a mild cancer drug) because this way it’s covered, whereas if prescribed for osteoporosis prevention it would not be. Go figure.

  2. Fran- two things – I was fortunate to see the new technology that maps the walking (and med taking) habits of the elderly as they ‘age in place’ in the future. It is truly extraordinary the tech options that are being driven by the Aging Boomer Tidal Wave. Second, we all too often think of brittle breaks as a “women’s’ thing in aging, especially in terms of osteoporosis meds. As this story illustrates, it is time to take off our gender-biased glasses!

    • You are so right about brittle breaks being no respecter of gender, and about the prospects for Boomer options ahead. The mapping of things like how one moves (hips & everywhere else, not just feet) as a way to prevent falls, and the high tech tools that will help us do that, are just fascinating. And will probably be regulation in another decade or less.

  3. I’m glad your husband’s okay, Fran. But since you brought up that infomercial — maybe your husband would consider wearing that product? Although if your husband won’t stick a cell phone in his pocket, getting him to wear an alarm on a necklace might be a battle.

    • You’re so right, carrying any sort of alarm device is not an option for independent-thinker husbands. I could have pointed out that he wasn’t wasting time, after figuring out that further exertion might be counter-productive, i.e. bring on a heart attack. He just stayed there strategizing on how best to give me advance notice when he heard the car pull into the garage. Was minimally successful: “I’m fine; but I am indeed on the floor…”

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