Fear of Falling

My sister-in-law took a tumble down a few steps the other day, ending up in the ER with a badly sprained ankle. Claire is my age, mid-50s, and she is in good physical health. She even does Italian folk dancing for fun. She was doing some chores around the house, not in a rush, not dizzy, just a little preoccupied, and fell with her laundry basket. I don’t often hear of 50-somethings losing their footing on the stairs, but I’m sure it could happen to anyone. In fact, I worry that it will happen to me!

I recognized my own fear of falling a few years ago. It was subtle, but despite many winters of recreational figure skating with my girls (and years of experience from my own youth), I was no longer skating without anxiety and hesitation. Fear of falling crept in during outings until I found myself on the sidelines as a spectator. It took a few weeks for me to understand that at some level I worried because as a widow with two young kids, I could not afford to be incapacitated by a broken limb. Skating wasn’t fun anymore; I gave it up.

My mother also had a fear of falling in her later life. She always kept a healthy weight and seemed fit. In her 60s and 70s, she enjoyed a walk around the block. One day she tripped on some uneven sidewalk. To break her fall, she put her hands out; they were scraped up and her knees were bloodied, but the worst damage was to her confidence.

I noticed almost immediately that her walking routine changed. She was hesitant—very careful on curbs and the few steps to her front door. I tried to encourage her to get back to the walking that I knew was good for her and that she seemed to enjoy, but something was lost. I teased her that it wasn’t the fall that was stopping her but the doubt.

I now recognize, because of my own fear, that this was truly the reason; she no longer trusted herself, and uncertainty had crept in. Afterward, Mom loved to walk my girls in a stroller or push a shopping cart—she had something to hold onto and it seemed to restore some lost confidence.

Falls are a major cause of emergency room visits for older people. As we age, it is vital that we maintain our balance to avoid falls. From what I read, once lost, balance can be hard to recover, so I do some very basic things every day to keep mine. I do nothing so conventional as an organized routine, but I stand on one foot for several seconds each morning as I get dressed.

If you are concerned about falling, the Elder Gym website offers some great advice for balance training at home—at any age. I like this site because it discusses reasons people may fall and recommends preventive measures, such as removing throw rugs and stowing away power cords. It offers suggestions to improve posture and to increase range of motion to prevent stumbling.

After her fall, my sister-in-law lost a week of work, and the rest of her Italian folk-dance season. That’s my inspiration to keep myself on my toes and to add a few more balance exercises to my morning routine.