People who are just starting to feel wobbly on their feet could benefit from making small changes to their home and behaviour to help them stay independent for as long as possible, Canadian experts say.
Falls are the main cause of accidental death among people aged 65 and older. Making simple changes like adding coloured tape to the edge of stairs, or a grab bar in the bathtub to prevent a tumble could reduce the risk of falling.
Occupational therapists are the go-to health-care professionals to solve problems that interfere with someone’s ability to do activities like taking care of themselves and enjoying leisure activities, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) said in its 2021 report on the health workforce.
Marnie Courage, an occupational therapist in Winnipeg, suggests people may get a bigger bang for their renovation buck by focusing on safety in the bathroom.
“The majority of these falls are happening in or around a bathroom.” Courage said in conversation with Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC Radio’s White Coat, Black Art and The Dose podcast. “Making modifications to a bathroom can have a huge impact on your function and safety.”
With the aging population, you may get that money back in the resale of your home, she said.
Courage answered audience questions on preventing and recovering from falls in the home such as how to adjust to wearing bifocals when climbing stairs, why a single handrail doesn’t cut it and why walking is a well-rounded way to keep up the strength and balance we need to prevent falls.
Bifocals help with seeing things close-up to read or watch a screen. But if you’re moving around, they aren’t ideal.
When we climb stairs while wearing bifocals, the bottom half of our lenses becomes blurry, creating a distortion of where the foot is, Courage said.
That can make it difficult to distinguish where the “nosing” is — the protruding edge of the stair where you plant your foot.
“You may misplace your foot or think you’re at the edge when you’re not, which can cause falls,” she said.
“I would suggest that for folks who have bifocals, especially if you’re newly prescribed … getting used to really using your head to look down at your feet, but first ensuring they’ve got a stable grasp on those handrails.”
2 handrail standard
Having handrails on both sides of steps will help someone who is weak on one side, such as after a stroke or knee replacement, to successfully walk both up and down.
“If you’ve heard that saying, ‘That first step is a doozy.’ I really think it applies here because handrails should really extend down to level ground at the bottom of the stairs and go above that top stair so that you have some leverage.”
At the first step, we need something to hold on to before descending. At the bottom, it also helps to have something to push.
WATCH: Tips to prevent falls in your home:
Placing coloured duct tape on the nosing of the step gives your brain a cue to better plan the coordination we need to climb stairs, Courage said.
Walking’s many benefits
With Canadians staying home more during the pandemic, doctors say we have become deconditioned. We used our muscles less frequently as we sat more.
Walking is one way to counter the trend.
Courage said that the stronger your muscles and joints are to maintain alignment, balance and strength, the better you’re able to keep walking in and around your home.
Paige Larson, a sports physiotherapist at North Shore Sports Medicine in North Vancouver, said any activity that involves standing to bear your own weight, such as walking, dancing, individual or group exercise classes all help with strength and balance.
“People give up sports because they think they’re too dangerous or that they may fall,” Larson said. “Perhaps there’s adaptive ways of doing things. If walking is getting difficult then adding poles can improve their safety as opposed to just giving it up altogether.”
Larson encouraged everyone to improve their balance and strength. It just might take longer as we age.