This month has been unusual for January in Michigan. Last week started near 50 degrees with rain, middle of the night thunder and ended with freezing temps and snow (the lovely glittering kind) which has left the sidewalks treacherous today. I remember two weeks ago, on a Tuesday, it started fairly mild and then suddenly shifted to freezing by late afternoon. I was on my way to meet my husband and children for dinner and kicking myself for not wearing a warmer coat. While in a brisk walk headed for the restaurant entrance, the hood of my raincoat pulled over my ears, I heard a women’s voice yell for help. I removed my hood to figure out what direction the call was coming from and spotted a middle-aged women standing next to a car down the lot from me.
As I hustled in her direction I saw another woman sitting on the ground holding a take-out container in her lap. I noticed her legs awkwardly beneath her in what looked like a horribly uncomfortable position and her purse pulling down one her shoulder. Her glasses were fogged over and she looked scared. I felt her fear and my own spike into hyper-drive. Oh how I wished in that moment I could shout in return, “I’m a doctor!” Instead, I did what I am capable of doing. Chatting it up. I got down on the ground with her and started asking a lot of questions. Questions about how she felt, about her medical history, whether she had any replacements (yes, the knee she fell on). I checked her hands and had her gently roll her joints. Meanwhile the other woman who sought help on “Shirley’s” behalf, also a passerby and not family (very concerned at this point), was recruiting a man to help lift “Shirley” off the ground. I firmly encouraged them to wait until “Shirley” felt ready, but we were standing in the rain and they felt, as did I, a certain urgency (and adrenaline) to get her up off the wet pavement. Ready or not, they lifted “Shirley” while I took the leftover dinner from her hands and supported her purse.
We got “Shirley” into her car and she sighed, sinking into the seat behind her. Relieved, alert, seemingly okay. I knelt by her and continued with the questions – she was alone – and she would be driving with an injured leg. Sometime during the conversation, the others had left and the restaurant owner came out to investigate. I was getting “Shirley’s” contact number, a last-ditch effort, as she graciously insisted all would be well and she was fine to drive. She assured me she lived close by and gave me permission to call her. Thankfully, she was fine, sore, but fine a few hours later and the next day, still sore and embarrassed. We agreed she would follow-up with her family physician. She told me her age. 92. Did she know how fortunate she was? More than I’ll ever know.
The CDC statistics on falling and older adults are enough to make you want to call your elder relatives and tell them not to leave home. Falls over 65 years of age are the LEADING cause of injury death (re-read previous sentence). After further reading you may discover they should never, ever go in to their bathroom again. You may reconsider your own household environment, please, and scan for preventable disasters waiting to happen. I live and work in fear of falling. A shocking number of Wisdom Keepers in our groups fell this past year. Several fell in their own homes, getting out of lawn chairs, out of cars, off bikes or while playing a backyard sport.
I have struggled to sit with this fear. Preparing myself each week for the phone call or e-email announcing a Wisdom Keeper’s fall and subsequent injury. I feel the tightness in my heart when I dial my voice mail code each Tuesday and Thursday – like Pavlovian conditioning. This past week, another fall reported on my voice mail; a group member unable to attend a support program, unable to drive. Another member this month, a fall in the parking lot of our building before coming in for coffee and Tai Chi.
Falling down is serious business in the geriatric world. It also happens to be an unfortunate late night comedy joke that over minimizes its impact ( the “help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” routine). While I am living proof that falling down can be funny and not too harmful (with the exception of pride), I still happen to be in what are likely my best bone years. Although age isn’t really too much protection from the act of falling itself: the memory of falling on ice while standing on the front step of our first house when I was twenty-five looms large. I crawled back in the house and then stayed home for several days. While I hope to include limber and spry as characteristics for a lifetime, I understand first hand as a witness to multitudes in aging, there are risks to be aware of and changes in the body we cannot deny. Most WK’s recover quickly from spills while tending to uncomplicated bruises and scrapes, and yet, many clients over the years have required hospitalization and extended rehab, some resulting in permanent (and premature) long-term care. In a word, devastating. They never return to their prior physical strength or cognitive status. This haunts me.
Next Blog.… Part 2 – Walking on Earth: Why Chi?
Fall Prevention Center of Excellence: www.stopfalls.org