Tomorrow is the autumnal equinox, the first day of fall in the northern hemisphere. Of course, the equinox is more like a moment in time than an actual day. Here in the US, the official moment is 5:05 am EDT; the sun will appear directly over the equator. The heat of summer is ending. The air is starting to cool. Leaves are turning and will soon fall from their branches. Which is fine and romantic, even inspiring. What is not so fine is when we fall.
Falls are a leading cause of injury for both children and older adults, and everyone in the middle suffers from them as well. Each year, one in every three adults over 65 will fall; two million will be treated in an emergency department for injuries caused by falling. Unlike the seasonal fall, which is inevitable, most human falls can be prevented. Falling is not an unavoidable hazard of aging. It may well be a normal part of learning to walk, but this is not what we are talking about with children: we are talking about children falling down stairs, or from counters and changing tables and the like – and these falls, too, can often be prevented.
Here are some general prevention tips for adults, older adults in particular, but all adults, really:
- Get some exercise and stay fit. If we don’t exercise, we lose our strength and balance. Weak legs and poor upper body strength increase the risk of falling. It’s pretty simple. Programs that increase strength, confidence and balance, such as Tai Chi, make falls less likely as we age. And it is never too late to start.
- Keep vision sharp. Poor vision makes it harder and harder to navigate safely, even around the house or in familiar settings. Older adults needs regular eye exams. Wear wear glasses or contacts with the correct prescription strength.
- Check drug and medication side effects and interactions. Many commonly prescribed medications, or combinations of medications, cause dizziness or drowsiness. These side effects, of course, make falling far more likely. Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist of review all your medications to help minimize the chance of potentially risky side effects.
- Make sure the house is not a minefield. Half of all falls happen at home. Clutter and poor lighting are common fall hazards, ones that are easily avoided.
- Remove things from stairs, hallways and places where you regularly walk that you can trip over – including shoes, sports gear, dog toys, books and papers.
- Get rid of throw rugs or use double-sided tape or good anti-skid mats to keep the rugs from slipping.
- Keep often-used items within easy reach. Use a sturdy step-stool when necessary to retrieve what you need, but it is better to have what you use often close at hand.
- Install grab-bars.
- Use non-slip mats in the tub and shower.
- Improve the lighting in your house. Reduce glare with shades or light-weight curtains.
- Make sure to have, and use, lights and handrails on all staircases.
- Wear shoes both inside and outside the house. Shoes, not slippers. Shoes, not barefoot.
- Do not let children play alone on high porches, balconies or fire escapes.
- Never leave an infant or baby alone on a bed, changing table or sofa.
- Always straps children safely into high chairs and strollers.
- Keep stairs clutter-free. Kids love running up and down stairs – and of course, stairs are frequently sites of home falls.
- Use safety gates, especially with toddlers. At the top of the stairs, fix the gate to a wall. And stay away from the accordion gates with large openings: a child‘s neck can get trapped with the direst of consequences.
- You know how they all seem to love the slip and slide routine, but area rugs are not a safe option for this game. Secure (or remove) area rugs, especially on wood, ceramic tile or linoleum floors.
- Keep windows closed and locked when children are around. If you need fresh air or ventilation, open windows that a child absolutely cannot reach.
- Set and faithfully enforce rules about keeping children’s play away from windows and glass doors. Falling through the glass can be fatal or cause very serious, disfiguring injury.
- Keep furniture, or anything a child might climb, away from windows.
- Never, ever depend on window or door screening to keep a child from falling out of the window or door. As is so often observed, screens keep bugs out, not children in.
- Unguarded windows opened just 5 inches pose a danger to children under ten. Many municipalities require landlords to place window guards in apartments where children live to prevent windows from being opened wide enough for children to crawl through. If you are living in apartment, check to see what the local regulations are about this.