Thinking Ahead: The fear of falling

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The call that no adult child wants to get: their parent fell while home alone and has severely injured themselves. It could be as simple as a loose throw rug or lack of proper handrails. But the Tompkins County Office for the Aging is equipped to help.


If you are not sure how to best analyze your home for safety upgrades, call the Office for the Aging. An available outreach worker will connect with the homeowner and, if they are willing, will walk through the home and assess what upgrades could be used.


Ideally, calling before a bad fall happens is best, but often the calls come in from worried family and friends that don’t want someone to fall again.


“Doctor’s offices will often ask the question ‘Have you fallen in the last year? How many times?’ Stuff like that,” said Rodney Maine, an Aging Services Specialist with the Office for the Aging. “The result of that is either the doctor’s office sending us a referral or a family member calling us to see if we can do a falls home assessment.”


Fear of losing independence or having to move are common reasons that people avoid calling about falls assessments.


Often, the advice from the outreach worker is fairly simple. Keep floors and stairs clear of clutter and make sure that stairways have secure railings and are well lit. Adding night lights on often used paths in the house, like from the bed to the bathroom, is a simple step. Moving frequently used kitchen items to within easy reach, instead of keeping them up on shelves or in cabinets can also reduce risk. Sometimes it becomes obvious during these assessments that people avoid doing certain mundane tasks because they come with a risk of falling.


“Oftentimes by making a minor modification, like adding a handrail, allows them to do that again,” Maine said. “Not only do we clear the clutter but we provide them a way to gain back some of their independence.”


These home assessments are completely free of charge and if upgrades are necessary the Office for the Aging can help people find affordable ways to get them done. The office frequently works with local partners to get work done at a discounted rate, get grant money to cover the cost or get volunteers to do the work. The Finger Lakes Independence Center (FLIC) is a frequent partner for residents who need ramps installed, and FLIC’s try-it-out room allows residents to find the best technology to help them remain independent if they have mobility issues. Better Housing for Tompkins County, now affiliated with Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, offers several programs to income-eligible residents who need home repairs and modifications.


“You look at it holistically,” Maine said. “How can you solve some of the most impactful issues that the person’s facing without going to the moon for it?”
Most of the time, he said, small changes to the environment are enough to keep people safe and independent. But sometimes the issues can fall outside of the office’s purview or expertise. Regular exercise and balance practices can help people minimize their risk of falling. Consulting with a physical therapist about regular exercise to help balance isn’t an uncommon recommendation. If an individual often takes several different medications, it’s possible that dizzy spells and other side effects are increasing an individual’s risk for falls, and they should consult their regular doctor.


“We don’t assess the medications specifically, but if we know that someone is taking a lot of them… we’ll mention that,” Main said. “That’s where we urge another visit with their primary care doctor to discuss those things.”


For people who would prefer to do an assessment of their home by themselves, an online version of the Home Safety Self Assessment Tool can be found on the Office for the Aging website. The 51-page document includes a checklist and solutions, descriptions of available assistive devices and helpful products to prevent falls, home modification services, stores that carry durable medical equipment, tips to prevent falling, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) instructions for home environment, and an action log to keep track of the entire process.


The Office for the Aging is just one of the community partners that is part of the Long-term Care Committee, with a Falls Prevention subcommittee. Outside of these regular home checks, the subcommittee has been putting together events and workshops to spread awareness of how to prevent falls. Over the last few months of 2018, the subcommittee put together several clinics around the area to provide falls risk assessments with physical therapists, nurses, occupational therapists, and pharmacists, and give people information about what they can do to make their homes safer.


In April, the Office for the Aging, in partnership with Ithaca College Gerontology Institute, will be hosting a senior living expo with more fall risk screenings. The free event will include over 30 exhibitors. To contact the Office for the Aging call (607) 274-5482.

Thinking Ahead

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