During 2008-09 I had the honor of being selected as a Community Voice volunteer opinion contributor for the Dallas Morning News. This fantastic opportunity pushed me to write longer pieces, and to work with an editor. As Community Voices we got to meet the opinion writers and many regular columnists at the paper and learn a great deal from them in workshops. We also got to attend a Monday morning meeting of the Opinion Board as they planned the week's editorials.
The links to my columns no longer exist since the DMN changed its online format and subscription policy. I am reprinting my May 2009 column for Kim of Hummus Anonymous.
Falls and Fears Affect Generations
Too old for naps, and too young for assisted living, middle age isn’t for wimps. Conversation with friends now centers on elderly parents’ falls, moods, and assisted living facilities. Making sure our little kids wore soccer shin guards was easy compared to aiding our parents. We often feel helpless to prevent their next fall, or to change their outlook.
The Greatest Generation once had nothing to fear but fear itself. Now it fears the big fall and a resulting loss of independence. Chances of falling rise with age, but the fear of falling rises more quickly. Fear of falling is often a self-fulfilling prophecy as seniors avoid activities and cut back on exercise. Reduced exercise results in weakened muscles, impaired balance, flexibility, and mobility. Fewer social outings erode emotional support. This pattern leads to more falls. The fear level increases with each tumble cycle.
The Center for Disease Control reports falls are the leading cause of injury in older adults, and the leading cause of accidental death over age 85. The U.S. spends over twenty billion dollars per year on fall-related injuries. In a three-month period 58 million Americans over age 65 see a health care provider or restrict activities because of a fall.
I’ve received unwelcome insight into falls and fear this year. Climbing down a ladder after inspecting Dad’s clogged rain gutter, I missed a rung. My crash backward onto the driveway gave me a major spinal jolt. With the wind knocked out of me, I felt pure fear. Would my dad trip over his walker trying to help me? Would I ever get my breath and voice back to tell him to stay in his chair? Climbing ladders made my activity avoidance list instantly.
Rushing into the grocery store on a stormy evening, I grabbed a shopping basket, caught my shoe on the rain mat, and catapulted across the lobby. The bagboy made a spectacular catch of the spiraling basket. It felt like a Cowboys slow-motion replay in front of a sold-out stadium. I landed hard on my knees, but seriously bruised my psyche. Embarrassed and much more afraid of falling, I considered avoiding grocery stores.
Grandma was one smart lady until the day in 1967 when she stood on a stepstool, balanced herself with a broom, and tried to change a light-bulb. She fell, broke her hip, and dragged herself to the rotary dial phone to call for help. During her stay in the hospital, Grandma saw little bluebirds perched on her bed. Would she ever be herself again? Placing a long distance call was reserved for birthdays and crises in 1967. This crisis required many calls, but at the age of twelve I didn’t understand the stress on my dad as he worried what to do about Grandma.
Forty years later my dad got tangled in a honeysuckle vine while checking his rain gauge. A broken hip for only one-tenth of an inch of precipitation is a bad deal. Dad’s quality of life changed in that instant. After surgery he saw an old-time movie projectionist showing newsreels near his hospital bed, but no bluebirds. Not knowing if Dad would ever be himself again made those days the scariest of my life. My siblings and I huddled by cell phone and email. What should we do about Dad?
Fall prevention measures are simple, but breaking the cycle of fear is difficult. Seniors often resist the physical rehabilitation and psychosocial support that can help them regain their quality of life after a fall. As they unconsciously decrease their daily activities, independent living becomes more difficult and dangerous. Middle-aged children feel the daily conflict between honoring their desire to live independently, and meeting their needs for health, safety, and psychological support.
Getting old sure beats the alternative, but there’s a good chance I’ll fall and break a hip. My sons will confer by some tiny future communication device. What should they do about Mom? And who will inspect the rain gutters?
© 2011 Nancy L. Ruder