By VANESSA McCRAY
TRAVERSE CITY — Falls among the elderly can cause brain, hip, spine, arm and other injuries, even fatalities.
So preventing a big slip should be a big priority. There are a number of risk factors for a fall, including poor shoe selection, declining vision, balance problems and tripping hazards such as throw rugs and a cluttered floor.
Traverse City physical therapist Rex Holden, co-owner of FAST Physical Therapy, said people stop moving in three planes of motion as they grow older.
"We become someone who moves forward," he said. "We rarely sidestep, and we rarely rotate."
A person who hasn't moved that way in a long time may not be quick enough or strong enough to catch herself from falling when she does misstep or trip.
"You are looking at lots of variables — strength, range of motion, reaction times ... knowing where your body parts are in space," Holden said. "If you don't practice doing that ... it's not automatic like it used to be."
One solution is to start simple exercises. Step sideways while standing at the kitchen counter, with hands holding onto the counter for support. While still at the counter, practice heel raises, lunges and shallow squats, Holden suggested.
A Biodex Balance System machine allows physical therapist David Rapson of Northwoods Physical Therapy to assess someone's risk of falling. A patient stands on a platform and tries to balance while the platform wobbles, requiring the patient to make adjustments and shift weight to remain balanced. The computerized machine ranks the patient's performance against others in the same age group, and it prints out results showing the "overall stability index."
Rapson uses the device for testing and training and sees improvement in patients' overall balance scores as his work with them progresses.
Medical calls account for about 70 percent of the emergency calls fire departments respond to in Grand Traverse County, said Meredith Hawes, fire and life safety public educator with the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department.
Falls among older adults "can lead to a lot of other medical issues," she said.
"It's a real spiral," said Hawes. "They are predictable, preventable things."
She teaches the importance of regular exercise and some common-sense precautions such as seeing an eye doctor and wearing well fitting, low-heeled shoes.
Aides for the Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging who work in clients' homes recently went through fall prevention training, said nursing supervisor Emily Rice.
The Commission on Aging will install grab bars for clients through its home chore program.
"It's more [about] finding little things around the house that could be dangerous, pointing them out to clients," Rice said.
Holden advises people to remove throw rugs.
He also said people who have had a near-fall or a close call grow fearful of falling. They take shorter steps and look down, which is bad for posture and can cause back pain.
But those who exercise, even for short amounts of time, can see improvement quickly.
"Five minutes at the kitchen counter," Holden said. "That's a good start."