Most older people are frightened of having them, most relatives of those older people are equally concerned by them, and most health and social care services are under pressure to avoid those in their care having them. Falls really are the ‘F’ word that no-one wants to hear.
The fear of falling that older people have stems from a variety of reasons – the most notable include the likelihood of injury (possibly serious injury that could include hospitalization, operations and long-term rehab – which could include a prolonged spell of being bedbound and/or needing residential care) and the loss of independence and confidence that a fall often brings. Other psychological problems include embarrassment, feelings of becoming a burden to others, and ultimately isolation from potentially not being able to get out and about as you once did.
If a person has osteoporosis, a fall is a serious matter. Broken bones, when you already have a condition where your bones are weak, is clearly something to be avoided. Post-menopausal ladies are particularly susceptible to osteoporosis and the drug treatments currently available are controversial, with some people claiming that they actually increase the chances of brittle bones.
For the relatives of an older person, the implications of a loved one falling can be huge, not just from the point of view of being incredibly anxious for their wellbeing (particularly if they need an operation), but also because a bad fall could lead to a long-term caring role if it leaves your relative less independent. The desire to minimize falls can often leave families wanting to wrap their loved one in cotton wool, but that in itself could lead to an older relative wanting to take more chances just to prove what they can do.
Risk-aversion, however, is something most commonly associated with health and social care professionals, as I wrote about here. Their services are often judged on the amount of falls those in their care have, and since serious falls can also lead to death from other complications in very frail individuals, they are under immense pressure to minimize falls.
I dislike bringing every health issue back to finances, but it is a well-known fact that falls cost the health service a lot of money – in excess of £2billion a year. Add in the pain, worry and potential long-term care implications and you would have a much higher figure (if indeed you could even put a cost on those). Despite this my dad, a gentleman who had multiple falls during the time when he was compelled to walk due to his dementia, was only ever given hip protectors and a crash mat by his bed to help minimize his chances of breaking bones. Possibly a hard-hat might have been more use on the occasion when he burst a blood vessel in his head from a fall and required staples in A&E.
Meanwhile, if you are an older person who is already in hospital, don’t assume you are necessarily safe from falling. I recently heard about an internal study on falls that was conducted by an NHS Trust providing older people’s inpatient mental health services. Amongst the stats they collected, they discovered that the people falling in their care were on average being given 4-12 different medications.
More worryingly, despite discovering this (which personally I don’t find surprising), they didn’t present either an explanation for such a significant level of polypharmacy or a proposal for how they were going to tackle it. Chances are little was really understood about these multiple drug interactions, and it was going to take a pioneering medical and pharmacy team to enable them to systematically review each patient and reduce their medications.
Although required to prescribe less antipsychotics in the treatment of people with dementia, medics often use other drugs such as antidepressants or sleeping tablets to make patients more ‘compliant’. However, the effects on their cognition and ability to be alert enough to move around safely is likely to be severely impaired, and that is to say nothing of the side-effects and interactions from all of their other meds.
In this Trust, and indeed any health and social care service where older people are having falls, I would like to see a complete prescription policy review, environmental changes (for people with dementia), regular OT input that helps people with exercises (including for balance), and investment into stimulation and boredom-reducing activity. Alongside this needs to be sensory assessments (to check for eyesight problems that could affect a person’s ability to see where they are going, or hearing problems affecting balance), assessments for other medical conditions that could lead to an increased risk of falls, careful consideration of foot health and suitability of footwear, and appropriate provision of walking aids as required. Last, but by no means least, there must be safe staffing levels in health and social care environments.
It cannot be overstated just how important safe staffing levels are. Firstly they ensure adequate supervision, which whilst it won’t prevent every fall will stop some and enable learning and change to happen to promote further falls reduction. Secondly they will provide support to people who want to (and need to) move around. Mobility is vital but it often requires support and for that to be available in a timely fashion, for example if a person wants to go to the loo urgently.
Imagine being an older person needing the loo, asking for help to get to the loo, that help not being forthcoming, getting desperate and trying to go on your own, falling and then soiling yourself – a more undignified scenario you really cannot contemplate. The opposite outcome is a health or care professional coming to assist you on your first request, helping you to the loo, waiting for you (not returning 30 minutes later when you’ve got so fed up of waiting you’ve tried to move and fallen) and then helping you to get to wherever you need to go.
We have to elevate falls prevention (without becoming overtly risk adverse) into the priority it clearly is. NICE issued this guidance and there is plenty more well-researched literature, including this from the Kings Fund. We know falls are bad news for everyone involved, but for the person falling most of all. We talk extensively about the dignity agenda in the health and social care of older people – preserving that must include proactive falls reduction. The nature of the human spirit is such that we will never prevent every fall, and in trying to could stifle people’s liberty in a totally unacceptable way, but the simple measures that are possible must be implemented.
Until next time…