As my mom walked to her car parked in the driveway earlier this month, the toe of her Ugg slipper got caught in a crack.
She fell on the concrete. She tried to break her fall using her left arm. Her forearm snapped in two. She sat on the driveway in excruciating pain until my sister arrived to take her to the emergency room.
I’ve often heard about the risks of falling for elderly folks. But the statistics from the CDC still surprised me: Falls are the leading cause of injury and injury death for adults over 65. About 36 million falls are reported among older adults each year, resulting in more than 3 million visits to the ER and more than 32,000 preventable deaths.
Until my mom broke her arm, I didn’t realize how life-altering a fall can be for an older person. I certainly hadn’t given much thought to what we could have said or done to try to prevent it. In fact, even though my mom will be 74 in a couple of months, I didn’t think of her as “old.” She’s not the parent who I worry about falling.
She’s been taking care of my dad, who has Parkinson’s and is a cancer survivor, since the pandemic. She teaches Arabic virtually to a group of adult students multiple times a week. She’s social and runs their errands and can cook amazing meals. My mom has a penchant for moving quickly from one task to the next.
She’s older -- but not old, I thought. These days, people in their 70s remain active and engaged, and I expected no different for her.
It would have seemed strange to warn my mom, of all people, to always wear proper shoes when she steps outside. Or to teach her exercises that help with balance and encourage her to do them daily. But now I wish I had said something. Balance tends to worsen as we get older, bones become more brittle, and the winter is the most dangerous time for falls. Women fall more often than men and account for three-quarters of all hip fractures.
When my mom got home from the ER, she reminded me that her mother had broken her hip in her late 80s and died less than a year later. Studies show that a hip fracture dramatically increases an older person’s risk of death. Even a lesser fracture can lead to a loss of mobility and functioning.
As you age, mobility equals independence.
Here are some of the risk factors that increase one’s chances of suffering a fall, according to the CDC:
-- Lower body weakness
-- Vitamin D deficiency
-- Difficulties with walking and balance
-- Use of medicines, such as tranquilizers, sedatives or antidepressants. Even some over-the-counter medicines can affect balance.
-- Vision problems
-- Foot pain or poor footwear
-- Home hazards or dangers such as broken or uneven stairs, and throw rugs or clutter that can be tripped over.
My mom underwent a three-hour surgery to repair her arm. When I saw the X-rays of her bionic arm, it looked like surgeons had installed an entire Home Depot shelf in there. She will need to be in a cast for a couple of months. It will likely take months of physical therapy to restore her upper body strength. In the meantime, my siblings are helping out and looking for home health workers who can come assist my parents. I hate that my mom has suffered so much needless pain and that her life will be upended until she’s completely healed.
We can be slow to change habits until an injury forces our hand.
I’ve learned to slow down when rushing down the stairs, to use hiking sticks when attempting a steep trail, to incorporate more balance exercises in my workouts and to pay more attention to the sidewalks when walking our dog. I regret not surveying my parents’ home and habits more carefully when I visited them last.
We’ve learned the hard way -- a fall can change everything.