People with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are four to five times more likely to fall than older people who don’t have cognitive impairment. They are also three times more likely to fracture their hip when they fall, which leads to surgery and immobility. The rate of death following a hip fracture for those with Alzheimer’s is also increased.
A person with dementia may have trouble recognizing sight, sound or touch. Their vision may be distorted, not because of an actual eye problem but because of how the brain interprets what it is seeing. They may have problems with depth perception, get confused by patterns or light intensity, and they may lose coordination of movement and physical strength.
Some of these changes are inevitable and irreversible. However, movement and physical activity can go a long way toward fall prevention.
Scott Salus, occupational therapist and co-owner with physical therapist Daniel Basta, of Kind Rehabilitation says, “One of the main things that helps prevent falls is understanding that a fear of falling is one of the best predictors that someone will eventually fall.
“It’s really important to address falls before they happen. Caregivers need to come from an honest and firm place, because the moment someone has their first fall that can be the moment they lose their independence,” he says.
When Salus’ then-65-year-old, physically-fit mother and her boyfriend were moving, he insisted they look into the future to think about mobility issues. Would it be more prudent to live in a ranch than a multi-level home? “You can start the conversation early and plan for an eventuality that may never take place,” he says.
Salus, who specializes in working with patients with dementia and Parkinson’s, says, “The process of fall reduction is a delicate one that includes practicing every-day activities. We
reassure patients that it’s safe to practice pulling up their pants, or going into a shower fully clothed.”
He evaluates if the patient has vertigo when bending to tie their shoes or getting up from a seated position. Have they had a recent surgery or new diagnosis? How do they manage pain? Do they need a commode, or learn to reposition their arms, feet, and legs when toileting or getting out of a chair?
A physical therapy program might include exercises for strength, flexibility, good posture, and gait training. Learning to maintain balance while you’re walking and distracted or multi-tasking is also important, Salus adds.
The Feldenkrais Method® (Awareness Through Movement® and Functional Integration® developed by Moshe Feldenkrais) is another modality that helps prevent falls by teaching individuals to pay closer attention to the way they move.
Al Wadleigh, a Feldenkrais practitioner who teaches privately and at the Longmont Senior Center, starts a chair class by asking the participants to begin with a scan by turning the awareness inward. “Get a sense of how you’re making contact with the chair and with your feet on the floor. How is your weight distributed on the pelvis? Now roll back and forward to sense how your lower back is in relationship to the chair,” he says.
“We go through the lessons—and there are 2,000 of them—to fill out the idea of exploring and sensing what feels good. It’s to figure out, when given a better opportunity and choice, what the nervous system prefers. It’s development learning in order to change habits from old injuries, surgeries, emotions, work, and thoughts that don’t serve us.”
The aim of Feldenkrais is to invigorate your brain and nervous system with new ways of organizing and sensing your movement in the world. “Around age 50 the brain says ‘we’re not using all our neuro-pathways.’ We have fewer to rely on, so we have to neutralize the old habits in order to live life with more vitality,” Wadleigh adds.
He ends the class by asking participants to do a self-inquiry. One person says, “I’ve done the pelvis rock many times but sitting on a chair made it clearer.”
Wadleigh responds that the smaller the movement the more precise it can be. Once you’re aware of what you’re not aware of, you can fill in those parts.”
Another person with Multiple Sclerosis says that one of his feet was dragging that morning. “Now I can lift it up.” He adds, “I feel a centered-ness since doing Feldenkrais, and have better structure. Now when I stand and I’m reaching for something I’m able to move easier. That’s big for me.”
20 Tips for preventing falls
- Have adequate lighting throughout the house; place night lights in the bedroom and bathroom.
- Limit liquids after dinner to reduce night-time toileting.
- Get adequate sleep.
- Remove loose area rugs.
- Wear gripping socks, sturdy slippers, or shoes in the house.
- Avoid unsafe shoes, i.e. flip flops and high-heels.
- Place guardrails where needed.
- Stand up slowly.
- Use a walker or cane for steadiness.
- Declutter and remove excess furniture.
- Implement an exercise program to support muscle strength, stability, and balance.
- Use a “reach stick” to grab out-of-reach items.
- Do not use a step ladder.
- Eliminate or reduce alcohol and smoking.
- Be wary of medications that cause dizziness, sleepiness, and unsteadiness.
- Be attentive to pain management.
- Be aware of where your pet is to avoid tripping.
- Get adequate calcium and vitamin D to maintain bone health.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Get regular vision and hearing check-ups.