By Dr. Audrey M. Provenzano
One word comes to mind when I think about Mr. H: grit.
I met him while he was in the hospital with pneumonia, the latest in a long string of hospitalizations after he broke his hip in a fall. I would see him in the halls with the physical therapist, gripping his walker, utterly absorbed in the work of lifting each foot and placing it back down.
Every morning on rounds, Mr. H would joke with us: “You’re going to throw me outta this place today, right, doc? Don’t pass go, just go home!” But beneath his humor lurked true sorrow, anger and frustration over his loss of independence. Before his fall, Mr. H had never stayed overnight in the hospital; he took only a few medicines for high blood pressure, and lived alone with his cat — a simple life he lost in a second, and yearned each day to get back.
Many of us harbor secret fears about growing older, and what many of us fear most is the loss of independence, a tragic and terrifying possibility. I’d suggest a very specific focus for those fears: falls. The most common but least talked-about reason that older adults like Mr. H lose their independence is falling down.
Here is what I most wish everyone knew about falls: They are are common, they can be devastating and, most importantly, falls are preventable.
• Falls are common
Incredibly common. Thirty percent of adults over 65 fall each year. Because falls happen all the time, we don’t think about how dangerous they are. Unfortunately, one in five falls results in serious injuries, including broken bones.
• Falls can be devastating
Mr. H’s story is the story of hundreds of thousands of older adults. A fall may lead to surgery, and sometimes that leads to complications, like pneumonia. Some older adults in this situation regain enough function to go back home; sadly, many do not, and one in three is still living in a nursing home a year later.
Even worse, these types of injuries often lead to declining health overall, and 20 percent of older adults who break a hip die within one year from the medical complications that frequently attend such devastating injuries.
• Falls can be prevented