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What does my elderly parent's fall mean?

Falls are a leading cause of injury and loss of quality of life, here's how to keep them safe.

12 November 2018
By Glynis Horning

It’s traumatic to have an elderly parent fall, and the results can be far-reaching. Falls are the single largest cause of death due to injury in the over-65s, according to the Department of Health’s National Guildeline on Prevention of Falls of Older Persons.

“Of those hospitalised, only about 50% will still be alive a year later,” it reports. “Falls are often the indirect cause of death, as when pneumonia or pulmonary emboli (blood clots) follow a period of immobility due to a fall.”

Even a minor fall can take a psychological toll, with loss of self-esteem, fear of falling again and losing independence, and what the guideline refers to as “self-protective immobility” limiting your parent’s quality of life.

You can help by looking into the reasons for their fall, and taking steps to keep them safe.

Find the reason

Even if the fall is minor, take them for a thorough medical examination, as the fall may signal the start of a major illness. Many chronic conditions cause weakness or dizziness, and a mini-stroke, heart attack or gastro-intestinal bleeding can present with a fall. It can also be the first sign of a urinary tract, respiratory or gall bladder infection, or a chronic neurological condition such as Parkinson’s, says Cape Town GP Dr Neville Wellington.

Ask their health professional to check for these, and for anaemia and dehydration. Blood tests can detect problems such as blood sodium or blood sugar being too low, and your parent can be guided on how to address these with diet or medication.

Their vision and reflexes should be checked, and their balance and gait assessed by watching how they walk, then any pain or discomfort can be addressed, or physical therapy suggested.

And importantly, your parent’s medications should be assessed. These can increase the risk of a fall, especially if they are on sedatives, tranquilizers or sleeping medication, opiate pain medication, blood pressure or diabetes medication, and anti-cholinergics (including medication for allergies, vertigo, nausea and some antidepressants), says Dr Wellington.

Ask if these can perhaps be reduced or changed for different versions.

Take steps to prevent falls

Encourage your parent to exercise, with supervision, to improve their balance and strengthen their legs. Walking, Tai chi and swimming can work well and are low impact.

Examine their environment for hazards such as loose rugs, uneven tiles or floorboards, and steps without rails; and their footwear for heels or slippery soles. Perhaps encourage them to use a stick, and get them a stylish one with a rubber tip.

It’s been estimated that falls in the bathrooms are 2 times more likely to lead to an injury than falls in the living room, so consider installing grab bars in and outside the bathtub, or better still, have a shower put in with a seat. Grab bars beside the toilet too can help.

Some parents may balk at such measures, fearing these make them seem older and more helpless than they feel. Explain that they are simply ways to help them stay independent and active, enjoying life to the full!

IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images