Falling is a common problem among seniors, and it's getting more attention in Stanislaus County from a coalition tasked with preventing the injuries.
It's estimated that one in three people age 65 and older has an accidental fall each year, and 20 percent to 30 percent of the time it results in moderate to severe injuries, including broken bones and head injuries.
From January to this month, the Stanislaus County coroner documented 24 deaths caused by falls among people 66 to 99. They included a 73-year-old man who died after falling in his garage and an 83-year-old woman who lost her balance while stomping a bug.
In 2007, the coroner's office attributed 91 deaths to accidental falls, which was close to the number of motor vehicle fatalities.
Not all deaths related to falls are tallied. The coroner's office doesn't always hear about people who are injured in a fall and then die in a convalescent hospital two months later.
"These incidents are all over the board," said Deputy Coroner Stephen Wright, who gathered the statistics. "They trip on a rug at home. They fall in hospitals. They trip on the curb when walking up to the store."
For those who suffer head trauma, a common cause of death is a subdural hemorrhage, or bleeding between the skull and brain. In other cases, the older person has heart disease or other medical conditions, and the fall injuries are too much to endure, Wright said.
The Senior Fall Prevention Coalition of Stanislaus County is working on a plan to reduce the number of injuries. The group includes the county Area Agency on Aging, the nonprofit Healthy Aging Association and representatives of health care, social serv-ices agencies, community groups and the building industry.
A $25,000 grant from the Archstone Foundation is paying for the planning. The agencies will rely on grants to expand strength-training classes and other prevention efforts.
Issue not always taken seriously
Jill Erickson, a manager with county Aging and Veterans Services, said seniors don't always take the issue seriously unless a fall puts them in the hospital. But they should. A previous fall is a strong indicator the person will fall again.
"I think a lot of people try to hide the fact that they fell," she said. "They are afraid it means they are not able to live independently. If you fall, it should be a wake-up call."
A host of age-related issues make older adults susceptible to falling. Their leg muscles grow weaker with age and their sense of balance starts to wane.
Sudden changes in blood pressure, when going from a sitting to standing position, can make them feel faint. Some seniors have inner ear problems or take multiple medications that can make them dizzy.
Those with cataracts or glau-coma have poor vision in the dark, putting them at risk of tripping while going to the bathroom at night.
Diabetics can lose sensation in their legs and feet or become light-headed from skipping a meal.
While falling often is no big deal for a child or younger adult, elderly people might have brittle bones and are not as good at cushioning themselves.
"They lose their ability to sense when they are leaning backward or shifting their weight," said Joe Fantazia, a physical therapist at Memorial Medical Center who works with fall victims. "By the time they react, they have gone too far to correct themselves."
Seniors who have fallen should see their doctor immediately to review their medication and determine whether a health problem was the underlying cause, Erickson said. Some are recommended for eye examinations or a specialist to check for inner ear problems.
Changes in the home environment also are recommended, such as removing throw rugs and other trip hazards, installing hand rails and night lights, and making it easier to get in and out of the shower.
Seniors also might consider an emergency response service or communication device, so they can call for help if they've fallen and can't get up.
Fantazia works with fall victims when they are hospitalized. He runs tests on the patients to look for problems, such as poor sensation in the ankles and feet, muscle weakness and slow reaction time.
Exercises are designed to improve balance and mobility, reducing the risk of falling. Fantazia said simple yoga or tai chi exercises are good at restoring a sense of balance.
"It is not like it permanently goes away," he said. "Some patients need a program to keep them strong and keep them off the floor."
The Healthy Aging Association has free "Young At Heart" strength-training classes for people 60 and older in Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale, Riverbank, Waterford, Patterson, Newman and Grayson. It also has low-impact aerobics, and a tai chi class for seniors at the Maddux Youth Center in Modesto.
Grants from cities and other sponsors pay for the classes, which accept $2 donations from participants who are able to pay.
"We are hoping to add another tai chi class, but we are limited in the number of classes we can offer," said Kim Bache, program manager for the association.
Summit to focus on prevention
The coalition also wants to provide a resource guide for seniors and their families. In addition, fall prevention will be the theme of the annual Healthy Aging Summit on Oct. 10 at the DoubleTree Hotel in Modesto.
According to the nonprofit Fall Prevention Center of Excellence, people who are 80 and older are at the highest risk of falling, but people can began to experience balance problems in their 60s or 70s.
Modesto resident Marylou Hacker, 65, didn't think about the issue until she tripped at home while holding her 2-year-old grandson in January. The fall broke her upper arm; the boy was OK.
Three months into her recuperation, she slipped outside her home and broke a foot.
She said she doesn't have balance issues but learned that thinning bones were a side effect of her diabetic medication. Her doctor prescribed another drug and she's made other changes such as removing small rugs and putting night lights in her home.
"It has restricted my activities," said Hacker, a retired Modesto Junior College instructor who serves on the Healthy Aging Association board. "I used to get on the train and travel around Europe alone. I am going with other people from now on."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.