In depth: Simple falls causing serious injuries to people over 65

Kelowna’s high population of seniors puts it in the spotlight for how it deals with seniors’ issues

Rita Wiens and her daughter Sharon Campbell, an occupational therapist with Interior Health, standing next to a physiotherapy exercise device at Kelowna General Hospital. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

Seniors injured from falls is placing a massive cost burden on our health care system, and figures to only get worse as the baby boomers continue to age, says the quality consultant on falls and injury prevention for Interior Health.

“We have a huge glut of our population we have never had before over the age of 65. People over the age of 80 are our largest growing demographic in this country, and one in two of them will have a fall,” Kelly Wilson said.

Wilson, who works out of a home office in Vernon, says the average medical cost for a senior who falls and breaks a hip and has a one-month hospital or rehabilitation centre recovery is about $40,000.

“Age is driving this issue because we are living longer but the other piece is inactivity. We live in a culture in Canada today where we tell older people to sit down, relax and don’t work so hard. From an activity and exercise standpoint, we should be saying the exact opposite.”

She blames the common injuries from falls— broken hips, wrists, hands or elbows—tends to result from weakening muscle mass as we age.

“Walking for a half hour three times a week doesn’t cut it,” Wilson said. “We need to be thinking about exercise programs that involves strength training to maintain a level of muscle mass. The number one risk to being injured in a fall is muscle weakness.”

She says nutrition also plays an important role, the need to maintain a healthy diet of protein from food types such as yogurt, eggs, meat and vegetables along with Vitamin D.

But that also creates a quandry, admits Wilson, as the more seniors push themselves to exercise and pay attention to retaining core muscle strength, the greater the risk of getting injured.

“For me, I always advocate do what you can to maintain your mobility as that is tied to your quality of life. In the end, the risk is always greater is you live a sedentary lifestyle.

“Living life always presents risk but you have to try to mitigate those risks by making healthy choices in your life.”

***

Rita Wiens is someone who has led a busy lifestyle in her elderly years.

The Kelowna resident is an active volunteer in the hair salon at Cottonwoods Care Centre for the past 18 years, lives on her own in a house and regularly takes long drives to destinations such as Winnipeg and further south to Texas, Kansas and Nebraska to visit friends and family. She recognizes being healthy is being active.

Rita Wiens and Sharon Campbell outside the entrance to the physiotherapy unit at Kelowna General Hospital. Photo: Barry Gerding/Black Press

But now at the age of 86, she is coming off her second broken hip due to a fall, and she is accepting the need to balance activity and caution, to not always be in a hurry, to regularly attend a seniors’ workout program at the H2O Centre fitness gym even though she’d prefer not to go.

Wiens sufferered her first broken hip in 2014 when she fell backwards off a stepladder doing prep work for painting a wall. The second fall, the more serious of the two, occurred a year ago when she tripped on the ground while hurriedly rushing to get through a gate in her friend’s gated community.

That second fall saw her hip fractured in three places. While she has regained her mobility after an arduous post-surgery rehabilitation, she still suffers from discomfort.

She has made herself listen to her physiotherapists, although she doesn’t always like what they’ve had to say or pushed her to progress, and also to her daughter Sharon Campbell, who is a professional practice leader of occupational therapy for the Central Okanagan at Kelowna General Hospital.

After the first fall, Campbell went through her mom’s house to implement safeguard measures to help reduce the potential for another fall.

However, the second fall was outdoors and unpredictable so the focus since for Wiens has been on slowing down and pacing herself.

“That last fracture she had was awful, the doctors said it was one of the worst they had ever seen, so to have come out of it as good as she has is a real blessing,” Campbell confided.

“But at the end of the day, she is going to make her own decisions. All I can do is give her the best information possible so she can make the most educated choices. I don’t agree with her driving across Canada but we talk about the risk and benefits of those trips for her.

“I want her to do what she wants, just do it safely. I want her to enjoy her life as much as possible, not to be hovering over her all the time but allow her to retain the freedom to do what she wants and live her life to the fullest.”

Campbell says there are a myriad of ideas that seniors can adopt in their homes to better ensure their safety from falling, from products like hip protectors and stairwell and bathtub railings to reducing the use of mats on slippery floors and wearing proper fitting clothing and shoes.

Occupational therapists and physiotherapists can do home safety inspections and watch how a person interacts in their own home to make recommendations on improving their home safety, she noted.

“We are starting to face what will be a tsunami of seniors coming through the health care system with our current population demographics and we don’t have a tsunami of funding to deal with it,” she said.

She said this realization hasn’t been lost on the ministry of health, which Campbell says is working on developing several strategies yet to be finalized to address those concerns.

For Wiens, she is thankful for her daughter’s assistance but remains steadfast in wanting to retain her independence.

“My deal is just to not become a complainer, follow the old adage that a happy person is a healthy person. I’m happy despite my condition, I have a strong faith and try not to let anything negative bother me. I am learning to be a little more patient.”

***

Wilson said the impact of seniors suffering falls on our health care system has not peaked yet, particularly given that people in their 80s is the fastest growing age demographic in the country.

She says every 10 minutes across B.C., someone is hospitalized from a fall.

“The vast majority, about 95 per cent, of seniors who suffer falls do so in their homes, particularly among the elderly who are living alone,” she noted.

She reiterates the best weapon the health care system has is to encourage seniors to keep moving, noting while a new national campaign for seniors to exercise for 30 minutes three times a week is a start, it’s not enough.

“We need people to start specifically thinking about strength training at least twice a week as part of their exercise routine to help maintain their muscle mass. People who sit and watch television all day or lead inactive lives put their mobility in jeopardy as they age, and increase their risk of falling,” she said.

She said communities across Interior Health offers exercise programs geared to seniors fitness as does the Interior Health homecare support service.

“It is super challenging for someone who has lived their life without exercising to change that behaviour later in life. We need to get people started with exercising or living a more active rather than sedentary lifestyle earlier on. There is a social component to exercise as well that helps keep your mind active which is also important for seniors.”



barry.gerding@blackpress.ca

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