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Staying Put for Fear of Falling: Don’t Get Caught in the Cycle

separator You hear that falling becomes more common as you age, so you decide you’ll cut back on your activity level, and maybe cut back on your chances of falling. You stay at home a lot, sit on the couch a lot, talk on the telephone, read a book, watch television…that’s the way to keep yourself safe, right?

Well, no. In fact, the more active you are, the better condition your body is in, the better your ability to keep your balance, the better your health and the less likely you are to fall. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), there are three things you need to keep your balance:

  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Endurance

You won’t build or maintain any of these three things by sitting still. But falling can have such severe consequences that the fear of it can hold you back. And the fear can be even worse in the winter, when snow and ice make even a trip to the end of the sidewalk hazardous. Don’t get caught up in this Catch-22 situation, in which you’re so afraid of falling that you lower your activity level, which in turn increases your risk of falling…

Address your fear
According to the APTA, 1 in 4 people over the age of 65 who live at home will fall in the next year. If your response to that statistic is fear, you’re not alone. Many older people live in fear of a fall that might lead to the end of their independence. After all, research shows that:

  • Falls are the ultimate cause of 40 percent of nursing home placements
  • Falls are the leading cause of accidental death in older people

And if you have a health condition that makes activity painful, such as rheumatoid arthritis, your fear of falling may be even higher.

But research has shown that people who have a higher fear of falling also have a higher rate of falling. So instead of letting the fear of falling keep you from being active, a more productive response is to take action to address your fear.

Working with a group can help
It’s easy to say, “Just don’t be scared and do some exercises! Get up and go already!” But it’s not always that easy. If fear of falling is holding you back, it’s a good idea to take a class taught by someone who understands your concerns and any health conditions you have.

Contact local senior centers to find out whether they have any programs geared toward overcoming the fear of falling. You may want to ask whether they offer a class called, “A Matter of Balance.” This was developed by professionals at the University of Boston. It addresses the fears older people have about exercising and ways to help them gain confidence and strength. If they don’t offer the class, you may want to suggest that they consider offering it in the near future.

Common sense also plays a role
Besides keeping your activity level up, there are a lot of practical things you can do to reduce your chances of falling: 

  • Try to keep clutter in your home to a minimum.
  • Make sure any throw rugs are taped to the floor with double-sided tape.
  • Store things in your cabinet so that you can reach them without using a step ladder.
  • Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and bathroom floor.
  • Wear shoes that give you good support. Avoid slippers and athletic shoes with deep treads.

And avoid walking on ice at all costs!

The American Physical Therapy Association; Rheumatoid Arthritis, 15 October 2003; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; University of Boston’s Roybal Center for the Enhancement of Late Life Function.
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