This summer, my 84-year-old, active, vibrant, still-working mother joined the scary statistic of 33 percent of U.S. seniors who are hospitalized each year due to serious falls. Although she should return to independent living after healing and physical therapy, Mom sustained a compound fracture of her femur.
And, as a senior care specialist, I'm aware that falls are the leading cause of fractures, hospital admissions for trauma, loss of independence and injury-related deaths among people over 65.
Still, when it happened to my own mother, I'll admit that I wasn't completely prepared. And while I try not to be superstitious, I remembered that bad things sometimes happen in threes. The day after my mother's accident, my 20-year-old daughter took a tumble while jogging and fractured her knee. And to make matters worse, I had an unfortunate mishap while water skiing a few days later (the water ski clobbered me) and I needed eight stitches right above my eye. So within a 24 hour period, we had three generations of injured women. But my biggest worry was still my Mom.
First, the good news: Like most seniors who are mentally sound and physically active, my mother will survive her injuries. After a period of limited mobility and physical therapy, she will likely go back to being independent. The bad news is that seniors who sustain one serious fall are at increased risk of falling again.
For the benefit of those who haven't faced a "fall" crisis, let me share a few things to consider. I hope you won't need any of this information, but better to be prepared.
1. First, get finances in order. Although I have power of attorney for my mom, her bank did not have the requisite paperwork on file that would allow me to access her account, pay her bills and handle her affairs while she recuperated. We fixed that oversight. Make sure some level-headed member of the family has the ability to move funds, keep the utilities on and deal with insurance claims.
2. Take a seat. Viewing your parents' home and your home from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair is a great way to identify barriers and safety hazards. You can make some immediate changes -- like moving furniture, picking up loose throw rugs, relocating decorative items -- and then plan for widening doors and building ramps for more long term accommodations.
3. Study transportation options. Isolation and loss of lifestyle are two major complications of falls, both of which can lead to depression. For a senior who, until the fall, still drove themselves around town, the loss of mobility is a huge life change. Investigate wheelchair-accessible public transportation, specialized buses geared for disabled citizens, private car services and other assistance. Even if you plan to help Mom or Dad get to most of their appointments, it's helpful for you, and your mobility-challenged senior to have choices available. My Mom had medical appointments in Boston, two hours from her home. We hired a driver for those trips, which would have been difficult to navigate otherwise.
4. Call your local senior center. There may be items you'll need temporarily that you can "check out" from the center, eliminating the need to buy one. (For example, we got a shower chair from the center near Mom.) Senior centers also can provide information about other services you may need.