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Stay steady on your feet

It was a close call. Envision a sunny spring afternoon. Blue sky. Birds singing.

I’m standing on an uneven and slightly rocky lawn in an unfamiliar setting, wearing the 5-year old, too-loose sandals I dug out of my seasonal clothing box that very morning. The terrain is lumpy and overgrown. The sun is warm, but it’s in my eyes, and my sunglasses have gone missing. Loud nearby pounding noises are a little distracting. I step carefully around a metal fence and stand on the edge of a crumbling walkway.

My husband is with me, absorbed in a conversation with new acquaintances who are making decisions about future-proofing their home to prevent falls. The congenial fellow we are meeting with is a recent amputee who is using his prosthetic leg impressively, but a little tentatively. Understood. He is wisely aware of his vulnerability to fall and fracture, and the conversation is focused on preventing falls in and around the home he is soon to move into.

And then it happens. Ironically, it’s me who falls. Or almost. A too-quick turn on my part introduces an unseen tripping hazard. It’s my desperate grab at the swinging metal fence gate that averts disaster. Whew. That was close.

Anyone who experiences a fall or a near-fall knows how unexpectedly it occurs. In this case, my biggest issue was embarrassment. There was no need for emergency transport or hospitalization and surgery. But I became a statistic — the 1 in 4 older adults who falls. And I know enough about fall prevention to recognize a near-fall can present its own unique problems. It can make you more likely to fall again because of self-imposed anxiety about the fear of falling. Maybe you over-compensate and become too sedentary and less likely to exercise regularly. Resultingly, you lose muscle strength, endurance, flexibility, and your sense of balance can become compromised, increasing your likelihood of a fall.

Research is clear: “Falls are the leading cause of accidental death in the elderly.” I do not see myself in the “elderly” category, but that may be hubris on my part. If I had fallen and experienced head trauma or a broken hip or femur, the responding paramedics would assuredly have written “older adult or elderly woman” on their forms. Every 11 seconds in this country, an older adult ends up in the emergency room because of a fall. I could easily have been one of them.

In an issue of Consumer Reports on Health (June 2019) there was an article titled, “Stay Steady on Your Feet.” It highlighted several factors we may not always consider that put us at risk of fall and fracture. “Some medications, poor eyesight and the wrong shoes can hike your risk of taking a tumble.” According to a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine study, “Hearing loss, even mild hearing loss, can make you nearly three times as likely to fall.” And that particular study was not done on “the elderly,” it was done on middle-aged people.

And now, if you will excuse me, I am off to purchase a new pair of summer shoes. They will not be flip-flops.

Sharon Johnson is a retired educator Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com