Maryjo L. Cleveland, MD
Medical Director, Post Acute & Senior Services
Chief, Division of Geriatric Medicine
Summa Health System
May is Older Americans Month and this month the Health in Aging Foundation is focusing on injury prevention with the theme “Safe Today. Healthy Tomorrow”. For this reason, we are going to take a slight detour from our “It’s Not Normal” series and go into more detail on how seniors can keep free from injury. In a sense, it is a continuation of last month’s entry on preventing falls.
So, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “Safe Today”? Here are the 5 things that came to my mind first.
1. Wear seatbelts! Most seniors will continue to drive into their 80’s and want to be safe drivers. The single most important thing you can do to prevent injury or death in the event of an accident is to wear seatbelts. The National Safety Council estimates that wearing your seatbelt will reduce your chance of injury by 50%! Yes, sometimes they are uncomfortable and wrinkle our clothes. Wear them anyway. And while you’re at it, require that everyone else in the car wear theirs too.
2. Don’t wear high heels! (Gentlemen, you can skip this paragraph.) I have no data to present here; this is purely an anecdotal observation. I have seen beautifully dressed, well-made-up women totter precariously into my office in 2-3 inch heels complaining of balance problems! They are clearly setting themselves up for trouble. Appropriate footwear is key to comfort and safety. Fortunately, ballet-style shoes are popular and tennis shoes are now made in every color imaginable. So, set a new fashion trend by putting a stable gait ahead of vanity and wear sneakers with your skirts.
3. Practice physical fitness! Try a couple things to test your fitness. Sit on the floor and try to get up without using your hands. Can you do it? If not, sit in a chair and stand without the help of your arms. Is that possible? See how long it takes you to walk a half mile. Longer than 10 minutes? If you have trouble with these types of activities, you may need to work on your strength and your endurance. After checking in with your primary health care professional,, meet with a physical therapist or trainer and get some ideas about simple exercises that will strengthen your leg muscles. These are the most important muscles you have for maintaining independence, so make a plan and stick with it! Try to walk 150 minutes each week, gradually building up both distance and speed. Over time, you will see a remarkable improvement in your fitness level and reduce your chance for injury. And by the way, your mood, sleep, weight, and blood pressure are all likely to benefit as well. (See our tip sheet on walking for older adults for more suggestions.)
4. Know your medications! It’s not enough to know that you take “the purple pill.” Make a list of the medications that you take and be sure you know why you need each one. Include herbal products, vitamins, creams, patches, and eye drops too. That way, when you meet with a new healthcare provider, show up at the emergency room, or are admitted to the hospital, all of your providers have the same information. Do not take it for granted that when new medications are added, your old ones are taken into account. Ask lots of questions to ensure that you are not one of the many people who will suffer a medication error this year. (You can learn more tips for managing your medication here.)
5. Safety proof your home! Most older adults want to stay in their homes for as long as possible. One way to do this is to take an unemotional tour of your environment with an eye for safety. You may find it easier to ask a friend or family member to help you with this – they may see things you might overlook. During the tour, ask yourself the following questions about your home:
- Is your living space cluttered or disorganized?
- Does each room have good lighting? Can you turn on the lights from the doorway?
- Are there things you can trip on, such as throw rugs and extension cords?
- Are there rails in your bathroom to provide added security in the shower?
- Does each stairwell have handrails that span the entire length of the stairs?
Making these types of modifications are both inexpensive and simple — they just require a mental shift to the mindset that safety is more important than beauty. (Kind of like not wearing heels!) See our tip sheet on home safety for more information.
If we all make a commitment to focus on a “Safe Today”, we will be much more likely to experience a “Healthy Tomorrow” together!