What do you put on aging feet?
May I ask you to look down at your feet? Mine are early-morning bare right now. Which I always thought was fine around the house — but really isn't. At my age, and with a history of having fallen more than once, that's not fine at all.
After my shower, I will probably don sandals. I should put on sturdier shoes at the beginning of the day, but preferably not ones with laces that require tying, because those laces seem to easily come undone and then turn into a tripping hazard. I know all this stuff, yet I still love those sloppy old sandals. If I write the next few paragraphs particularly well, maybe I'll persuade myself to start wearing better footwear.
What kind of footwear do you intend to put on today? What's in your closet? Anything with elevated heels? Hopefully not. I may wear sandals occasionally, but I never wear heels anymore. I recently witnessed an older woman, smartly dressed and using a cane and (are you ready for this?) wearing open-backed heels. Granted, the shoes' elevation was not terribly high, but you could almost see those little plastic heels ready to pop off her feet at each labored step. What was she thinking?
That's the least of it. I've seen women wearing frayed, cotton bedroom slippers, without backs, on airplanes and men wearing flip-flops while they cut the grass — an easy way to lose a toe. Although, that said, men seem better at rising to the challenge of what to wear on their aging feet than we women do.
Research shows, indisputably, that what you have on your feet influences balance and gait. And your risk of falling increases dramatically if you wear certain types of footwear. Walking indoors barefoot or in socks — and walking indoors or outdoors in high-heel shoes — increases the risk of falls in older adults. Things like heel-collar height, sole hardness, tread and heel geometry are also relevant.
I know how hard it is to give up comfy footwear. But hear this: a large-sample survey focused on a group of community-dwelling people over age 65 and found that most of them wore slippers or socks at home. Unlaced shoes were a close runner-up. In a comparative trial, their likelihood of falling was "10 times greater." And the thing about falling when you're older is that it typically ends with something a whole lot more complicated than hurt pride and a few bruises.
Another large study found that athletic and canvas shoes (sneakers) were associated with the lowest risk of falls. Bare or stocking feet produced a sharply increased risk of falling. That does it — I am going to retrieve my sneakers from the back of the closet and put them on. And maybe go to the shoe store and get a new pair — the ones with the pull-over Velcro snap. In a bright color — maybe in "you-go-girl-green."
As we age, there are many things we cannot control. Here's something we can. Maybe you and I should think of those firm-soled, slip-resistant, low-heeled shoes we pledge to wear henceforth as a pair of insurance policies we keep at the end of our legs.
Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.