Fall Stories – Real Talk from Real People About Falls and Falls Prevention
My first fall was a shock. I was walking in downtown Long Beach, where I live, in a hurry to meet friends for dinner. It was still light outside, a bright summer evening. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. My toe had caught on one of the sidewalk tiles that was slightly raised up. This had never happened to me before as I had walked down these streets many times.
As I got up, slightly embarrassed, although no one was around to witness my embarrassment, I thought ‘that was odd,’ as I had never fallen before. I have always been active and athletic. I had run in a 5K Color Run only two months before, jogging most of the way. I gathered myself, assessed my injuries (none other than to my pride), and joined my friends for happy hour.
Two weeks later, I fell again on the same street, Pine Avenue in downtown. I began to think there was something wrong with me. As I talked to older friends who lived downtown, I discovered many of them had also fallen with varying degrees of injury. The worst fall story I heard was a male friend who had broken his wrist trying to stop his fall. My confidence waned. I began to curtail my activities and stay home more.
At this time, I was volunteering for Dignity Health – St. Mary Medical Center at their Bazzeni Wellness Center Senior Program. When I talked to staff there, it was suggested I might be interested in the Fall Prevention Program, sponsored by Heart of Ida. I could attend the seven-week session for free by becoming a “Peer Leader” and assisting with the program delivery by sharing my story and thoughts on falling, distributing handouts, and helping set up displays and refreshments. I didn’t hesitate to sign-up as I really wanted to know how to prevent myself from falling again.
As I attended the sessions, I learned techniques and strategies that would prevent me from falling in my home and as I moved about the community. As I learned more about fall prevention, I gained back my confidence and felt better about being active, and began to continue my active lifestyle. Since taking the Stepping On fall-prevention classes, I have not fallen once. I have tripped a couple of time over uneven sidewalks and bumps in the road as I cross the streets, but not fallen. These trips remind me to continue practicing the techniques I learned in Stepping On.
They are effective and easy to implement I also made adjustments to my home environment to eliminate trip hazards. Adding automatic lighting to pathways that turn on as the sun sets was a big help in preventing falls during the middle of the night bathroom breaks. I created a safer environment for my cat and myself by creating a cozy sleeping environment for him, so I wouldn’t trip over him in the middle of the night. The technique I use most frequently is
the heel-toe walking method.
One of the most important things I learned is as we age, our body goes through subtle changes. If we don’t know about these changes, we can’t adjust to them when they begin to occur. Exercising my feet and ankles and walking heel-toe has built the strength in them and has kept me from falling or catching my toe on upraised sidewalk tiles. I encourage every older adult to participate in a Stepping On class to learn about the changes as we age and techniques that can keep us living independently and safely in our own homes.
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Annie turned 72 this summer (Happy Birthday!) while she attended the fall-prevention class, Stepping On, at Dignity Health – St. Mary Medical Center. The class is offered a few times a year through various institutions and organizations. To bring awareness to fall prevention, Annie shared her fall experience with the Heart of Ida.
Heart of Ida: What brought you to the Stepping On class?
Annie: I saw it in the newsletter and registered.
Heart of Ida: Have you had falls before the class? Or near falls?
Annie: I have had many falls before the class. One of the falls happened during a 5K walk. The sidewalk was wet and uneven, lifted on one side, and I was not paying attention. I went down. I injured my shoulder and sprained my ankle. I walked around with a boot for awhile and a sling on my shoulder. It was a fall with injury. I have had so many.
Most of my falls happened in the home, mostly in the bathroom. A couple times the paramedics had to come out. But those were due to, not so much tripping over stuff in the house, but due to being ill with cold/flu. I would become dizzy, get up, and fall.
Then, I would get to the hospital and find out that most of those falls were due to dehydration. Being ill with the flu and dehydrated caused the dizziness and I fell.
Now, I know to drink plenty of water and liquids to avoid being dehydrated. I bring water with me when I leave the house.
The other falls…I fell getting off the bus, coming down the steps, I think I missed a step. I fell in the street, stepping off the curb. Where the curb slopes down, I forgot and was not paying attention, maybe rushing too. I tripped and fell into the street. It was scary. That fall was scary. Those falls, I believe were due to my glasses. At the time, I had bifocals. They said I would get used to them, but no, I did not. I now have three pairs of glasses: regular-distance glasses, sunglasses, and reading glasses.
Heart of Ida: You just finished your last class meeting of Stepping on, what was your experience like?
Annie: Oh, the class has been wonderful. It has helped so much. It has given back my confidence. When walking in public spaces, I’m more aware of my surroundings. I’m more aware of where I’m stepping. I learned to look ahead. The heel-toe walk has become part of my routine now. I’m barely thinking about it, I’m just doing it. I look ahead to see what’s in front of me rather than looking down or not paying attention.
Heart of Ida: Do you think that you are better able to prevent future falls?
Annie: Oh yes, I’m more aware and confident.
Heart of Ida: Would like to tell the community about fall prevention?
Annie: When you are walking, be aware of your surroundings, take your time, take it slow, don’t rush. I think that is the key that I learned in this class, don’t rush. And this class, it was very informative with guest speakers. I also want to say to the community: sign-up for senior fit classes, exercise every day as much as you can, and move, move, move. Keep moving.
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Several years ago, John experienced an injury to his back. The injury caused a disk in his back to compress resulting in the loss of use of his left leg. Through tenacity and diligence, he had regained most of the use.
Around the time of his recovery, his wife, Rosemary had been newly introduced to fall prevention through the Heart of Ida. One of the first Stepping On courses led by Heart of Ida was being held at the Alpert Jewish Community Center. Rosemary encouraged John to register.
John: The personal damage to my leg was the indication that there was a problem; that and my wife’s encouragement. I’m glad I went to the class. And I’ll tell you why…because I haven’t fallen yet.
Heart of Ida: How long ago was that? It must have been one of the first Stepping On courses Heart of Ida held when fall prevention was rolling out in Long Beach.
John: Yes, I must have been one of the first participants. That was about three years ago or so. I attended all seven sessions and I learned a lot. I’m a bullheaded guy. That class changed the manner in which I walk. Now, I look ahead. In doing so, I’m ahead of the obstacles before it becomes an ‘obstacle.’ It gives me a moment to have a second thought.
Most of what I know about falls is from my work. I’m 76-years-old and in the insurance industry. I’m constantly getting information from the casual field, life and health; about falls and seniors. With some claims, I talk with people who have experienced a fall with injury. I’d say 40% of those people have experienced a previous fall, which was unreported. Those previous falls just weren’t severe enough for a hospital visit, and didn’t require a major insurance claim, but they happened. It’s not that I was unknowing about falls.
Because I drive and I’m out in the field talking to people, like today, I’ll be at UCLA and then to Anaheim, so I have to be proactive; not only with fall awareness, but also with exercise. I’m still working and need to keep active. I have a daily routine.
I have a walker by the sofa that I use. Where I live, I come down stairs, turn on the coffee, get everything ready, then I pull out the walker. That is my exercise. I do knee bends, more bends and lifts; then I do 50 toe and heel raises, those that I learned in the class. I do those and more. And that’s my daily routine. If I don’t, by the time I reach my car or go about my day, I know there is something wrong; something missing. My muscles are still tense, you know, and not as elastic as you need them to be. Feelings of unbalance.
When you’re young and healthy, your environment is more controlled, you can go to the gym or not and still live in a safe environment. But when you’re older that safety is not there. You have to work at it. You have to be proactive, you can’t be lazy. Because when you forget and let your guard down, you fall. That class changed the way I think and I’m not being flattering. It worked for me. You have to be defensive and work for your life. I want to tell more men. Women will most likely seek help, but men, they don’t ask for help. Until their on their butt and embarrassed and have to ask. I’m the model for that stupid.
In my lifetime, my experience with the earth has been dramatic in different ways, I was a commercial diver for years, I was also a fireman. Part of my job was air/fire/crash rescue. I was active and I knew how to fall; had parachute training, all of it. But as age comes, your body isn’t strong enough to react to these things. We have less bone density, so falls are dramatic. Our muscles are not as quick. We try to cushion the fall and break a bone, tear a tendon. There’s no shame in wheelchairs, walkers, canes. A cane is good. A friend of mine broke out all his front teeth not too long ago. His vanity prevents him from using a cane and now he is suffering.
Heart of Ida: Thank you for sharing John. What would you like to add or say to the community?
John: What this experience has taught me, and I want to stress that in my words right now, that is to look forward where I am walking. Look forward to the obstacles in front of me and preplan mentally. Otherwise, I’m going to do something like step over curbs, over bushes, like the medians or planters in the parking lots. You got to look at your whole environment, your whole body. I even drive differently. After these three years, the change is a part of my everyday.
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My connection with fall prevention began with a rude introduction. I fell. It was a very bad fall. It was last November (2016). I was walking on some wet pavement and the next thing I do is I fall flat on my face. And I was down.
I’m not sure if I lost consciousness or not. I was very stunned. I was in the front my own house. The sprinklers had been on, which made the sidewalk wet. I couldn’t get up. I could not physically pull myself up to stand. None of my neighbors were around to help. It must have been a weekday morning. I had no other choice but to crawl to my front door and crawl inside.
The first thing I thought was don’t go to sleep, you may have a head injury. So, I got myself up on a chair and I just sat there for a while. Then, I didn’t feel so bad. I got up and looked at myself in the mirror.
And, I had this big goose-egg bump on the side of my head, abrasions down my face, and I was starting to get two black eyes.
I used to work in healthcare and we are the worst patients. We have the biggest attitudes when it comes to medical care. I didn’t seek medical attention. I didn’t go to the hospital or doctor. I was told to go. Friends and family urged me.
But, I didn’t want to go, so, I mended my wounds.
From then on, I was so afraid of falling again. And my balance was noticeably off. I felt out of control. I had never fallen before that incident. Not even a stumble. It was my first fall ever and it was bad.
My son tried to help and purchased me a cane. The short-term abrasions, bruises, and bumps healed, but my balance was bad and it remained off. The fear of falling was great too and did not subside. I’m not sure if it was completely physiological (having to do with the body) or if there was something psychological (having to do with the mind) going on too. From that point on, I was very cane dependent.
After some time, there was a part of me that said, “Well, I’m not putting up with this. I’m too young. This is ridiculous. I don’t want to depend on this cane. I’m just not old enough.” I went back to the senior center at Houghton Park.
Before the fall, I was taking the low-impact aerobics class for seniors and had been to Tai Chi as well. I started to take the exercise class again, but with my cane. I was so afraid of falling that I avoided the Tai Chi class. I thought I would just keel over. The fear of falling went everywhere with me. Every time I left my front door, I was afraid that I might fall.
So, during my low-impact aerobics class, one of the ladies there came up to me. Now, I’m out there doing aerobics with a cane. Kind of silly, right? But, I know I needed to do something. The cane gave me courage to get to the class.
She said, “You know, the rec center here offers balance classes.”
I never knew that the city offered these classes and was glad to hear about it. There was one being held that spring, so I signed up. It was called, A Matter of Balance. I started going and it was wonderful. It made all the difference in the world.
I went once a week for eight weeks. It was a series of classes that offered practical things to do to alleviate fear of falling, first of all. And then, what to do to avoid falls and if you should fall, how to get yourself back up again. That was this spring (2017) and I haven’t had a fall since that first one. My fear has diminished. I continue to exercise including the low-impact aerobics and Tai Chi. I consider it maintenance.
The biggest take-away from A Matter of Balance, that I use daily, is to be mindful of your environment. I still have a ‘thing’ with wet surfaces. I see it and I go right back to that fear. To overcome it, I call it the ‘Duck Walk.’ I point my feet outward slightly, get a good stance, look at that wet surface, and walk across with slow, meaningful steps. It makes me feel in control and confidant. I still have the cane, but I haven’t used it in weeks. I am really grateful for the class; all of it.
There are things you can learn that can prevent you from falling again or falling ever. Another thing I learned is that the human body is amazing. If you give it a chance, it tries to make itself all better. We tend to give up on it too quickly. I wasn’t ready to give up. I am happy to say that I’m out in the community, staying social, and keeping active. We have to.