Shirley Ristau’s throw rugs are secured to her floor with double-sided tape. Her shoes are flat and comfortable, and she’s careful to grab the hand rail as she navigates steps.
Yet despite those cautions, the 77-year-old Manchester woman is among hundreds of thousands of senior citizens nationwide who’ve taken a potentially debilitating fall.
Ristau’s tumble came a few years ago on black ice as she headed to her mailbox, but she was able to get up on her own and despite some soreness, she suffered no lasting problems.
That’s not the case with everyone, however.
As deaths from fall-related injuries have skyrocketed nationwide, officials from several states, universities and hospitals are doing more help elderly people avoid falling.
They say lives can change in a flash: a stumble on a loose rug, a missed step, a moment of vertigo, or even smudged eyeglasses that obscure hazards like a puddle or uneven sidewalk.
“We don’t refer to preventable falls as accidents anymore because in many people’s minds, an accident is like lightning striking _ how are you going to prevent that?” said Dorothy Baker, a Yale University research scientist affiliated with the Connecticut Collaboration for Fall Prevention.
“We try to make people realize that falling is very common, why they’re at risk and what they can do to reduce the chances that it could happen,” she said.
For many older Americans, injuries from falling — such as a broken hip or head injuries — start a cascade of other problems, making it impossible to live independently any longer.
Experts say preventing a fall is sometimes as easy as adjusting blood-pressure medication or other prescriptions, replacing worn rubber tips on canes or walkers or drinking more water to prevent dehydration and dizziness.
In Connecticut, this year’s proposed social services budget includes $500,000 specifically earmarked for new and existing programs to help prevent falls. It’s $300,000 shy of the original request, but supporters say it bolster the efforts and could help the state qualify for supplemental Medicaid funds.
State Sen. Mary Ann Handley, its primary sponsor, is among those who’ve fallen prey to a painful tumble. She fell on the state Capitol’s stone steps four years ago and cut her head so badly that she was hospitalized and needed stitches.
“The moment that I felt myself falling, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s happening to me, too,”’ said Handley, who received several calls afterward from people who confided that they, too, had fallen and were afraid to tell family members.
It’s more common than many people believe.
The Connecticut collaboration says three of every 10 people ages 70 and older will fall in any given year, and that half of them won’t be able to get up on their own.
The federal Centers for Disease Control says falling is the leading cause of injury-related deaths among older Americans, and costs the country about $20 billion annually.
Several senior centers, community groups and other organizations already offer programs to help seniors avoid falling. They include exercise classes to help with balance, assessments of in-home hazards and dietary tips to avoid dehydration.
Ristau, the Manchester woman who slipped on black ice while getting her mail, says she became more aware of hazards as her late husband became increasingly frail. The safeguards she put in her home for his welfare — a grab bar in the bathroom, suction cups and tape to secure loose carpet edges — now work to her benefit.
She’s also become an avid exerciser who has taken classes at the Manchester Senior Center in yoga, tai chi and flexibility techniques to improve her balance.
“It helps me. I can really feel it,” Ristau said after a recent class. “A few times if I’ve felt myself start to trip, I’ve been able to catch myself. I feel stronger, I feel more steady on my feet.”
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