At GHS Senior Care, our mission is to help seniors at risk of nursing home placement remain at home with our help. Maintaining good balance is a crucial component of this effort and not something that many seniors give enough thought. “Balance is something we all definitely take for granted,” agrees Joshua Chiu, PT, DPT, physical therapist at GHS Senior Care. “It is the starting point of any transfer, any movement, and everything we do.”
Experiencing struggles with balance, says Chiu, affects us in more ways than we might imagine. “Having impaired balance will facilitate a vicious cycle of a fear of falling, declining strength, a more sedentary lifestyle and often times declining mental and emotional health since you are no longer living the life you want to.”
It’s a big problem for seniors, with over 1.6 million older adults landing in the emergency department for fall-related injuries each year. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that falls are the leading causes of bone fractures, hospital admissions and deaths among older adults.
What compromises balance?
Older adults may feel as if they’re still in their 30s, but the decades take their toll on seniors due to changes in strength, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and balance. Poor balance can also result from a variety of causes including health problems, fatigue, slick surfaces, poorly fitting shoes, alcohol use, insufficient exercise and poor vision.
Improving Your Balance
So, what can we do to maintain balance and reduce our risks of falls?
- For starters, keep in mind that exercise is truly money in the bank of independence. Exercise programs that improve balance should include stretching, strengthening and aerobic conditioning as well as balance-specific exercises which work on ankle, hip and core muscle strength.
- Yoga and Tai Chi have also been recognized for improving and maintaining balance as well as promoting as sense of calm.
- Cardiovascular conditioning can help but it does not have to mean a high-intensity workout; even going for regular walks is beneficial.
Creating a Fall Prevention Plan
Your fall prevention plan, according to experts, should begin with your doctor and include a review of the following:
Overall Health: Eye and ear disorders can increase your fall risk, so make certain your eyesight and hearing is checked regularly. Tell your doctor if you experience dizziness, shortness of breath, numbness, joint pain or any other unusual symptoms. According to the NIH, health problems such as diabetes and heart disease can also challenge balance.
Medications: Review your prescriptions for those which may cause dizziness and discuss what alternatives may be available.
Fall History: Let your doctor know about past falls and the circumstances surrounding them.
Don’t ignore changes in walking patterns. If you begin to change the way you walk, take note. If a once regular stride is reduced to “baby steps” or shuffling, don’t wait to get assessed. Not only can this increase your risk of falling, but it may be an early sign of dementia.
Check your Vitamin B12 level. This vitamin is found in foods from animals such as meat, eggs, poultry and dairy products; not getting enough can affect your balance.
Walk this Way
- Ditch super-high heels, shoes with slipper soles, clumsy clogs and shoes past their expiration date. Treat yourself to footwear which provides support, such as those designed for walking.
- Don’t take chances. Walking around in stocking feet, especially on stairs, may be asking for trouble. Choose slippers and socks that provide traction.
- It may sound simple, but watch where you’re walking. An uneven sidewalk can result in a fall that sidelines you for months.
Kathleen Stevens is the community engagement coordinator at GHS Senior Care. Based on the PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) model of care, the center offers seniors the care, services and support needed to remain at home and in their own communities. The center is located at 32 Centennial Drive, Greenville.