JOHNSON COUNTY– A year ago, my mother fell and broke her hip. The accident was painful for her and scary for my sister and I. Luckily, it wasn’t very serious, just a tiny chip. As we waited for the diagnosis, I researched hip fractures and found falls can be the first slippery step in a downward decline.
People who fall and break bones can become dependent on others for food and doctor visits. If confined to bed or unable to get around, overall health can quickly deteriorate when someone’s seemingly small injury affects general health, mobility and independence.
Seniors are especially vulnerable to the effects of falls, often cracking wrists, legs and hip bones that can break more easily as bones become more brittle with age.
Iowans 75 and older are four to five times more likely to check into long-term care after a fall, and falls are also the leading cause of injury-related deaths for older Iowans.
What can be done to help prevent falls and protect those susceptible to fall injuries?
A Johnson County coalition called Sure Steps has some answers. The group grew from a volunteer action team of the Johnson County Livable Community for Successful Aging Policy Board (JCLC).
In the aftermath of a fall, said Program Coordinator Mary Willie, family members have to pick up a lot of caregiving, and the effects of injuries can quickly expand to the community.
The average cost for older Iowans after a fall for injury-related hospitalization is over $19,000, she noted.
Preventing falls is serious work; Willie, an Aging Specialist with JCLC, wrote a grant to The Wellmark Foundation that was awarded in 2010 and will run until December 2012.
The funding has helped Sure Steps educate and increase awareness of the personal and direct costs of senior injuries from falls by helping people make their homes safer and motivating seniors to increase physical fitness that can help with an individual’s balance and recovery.
Exercise is one of the most important steps to reduce the risk of falling.
Falling has a high cost for the senior, she said, that can impact families, employers, community members and the health care system.
Willie is working to get the word out, and will visit area groups to present information to seniors, make health assessments and train care providers to reduce the risks of falls for seniors.
One test she conducts is called the “Get up and go.” It measures the time it takes to get up from a chair, walk a short distance and sit back down. A person’s time is an indicator of balance and agility. “The longer it takes,” Willie said, “the worse your balance is.”
Willie said injuries from falling can result in “a huge cost emotionally, psychologically, and financially” for seniors and families.
Therefore, she’s sharing some low- and no-cost things people can do to prevent falls or minimize their impact, such as moving a washer and dryer from basement to main level to avoid climbing stairs. If stairs are unavoidable, make sure hand railings are secure inside and out.
She advised that medication and poor vision can contribute to risk of falling. Medications, or combinations of medicine, can cause dizziness or sleepiness and should be reviewed. Poor lighting, wearing the wrong glasses, or eye conditions can also be hazardous.
In winter, she recommended putting salt or cat litter inside the home to skip a trip to the garage.
Wearing gloves will keep cold hands out of pockets and give more balance when it’s icy.
Footwear should have sensible treads without a heel. Canes and walkers can be fitted with sharp, icepick tips to grip slippery sidewalks.
Mary Willie and the Sure Steps team will be on hand at the Aging Expo held at the Coralville Marriott Convention Center on Wednesday, Oct. 26, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. to answer questions and advise seniors, families, caregivers and service providers on ways to prevent fall injuries.
On Thursday, Nov. 10, she’ll give a Sure Steps presentation on home safety at First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City from 10-11:30 a.m.
Contact the Sure Steps team at 319-930-2607 or email SureSteps@LivableCommunity.org  for more information.