Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall, according to the National Council on Aging. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports one in four Americans aged 65 and older fall each year, making falls the leading cause of injuries for older adults. From falls, older adults risk a range of injuries including broken bones, sprains, cuts, bruises and other kinds of pain and soreness.
Cecelia Fortune, a physical therapist at Springwell Senior Living Community, said these statistics reflect what she sees in her practice. “The most frequent injuries I see are from falls,” she said.
Depending on the severity of the injury, Fortune said a simple fracture can take six to eight weeks to heal, longer if surgery is required. Shoulder injuries, on the other hand, “can take up to three months” or longer, said Fortune. “Shoulder injuries can really linger.” Hip injuries, she said, generally don’t require as much recovery time. Factoring in the need to rebuild balance and mobility in the hip, Fortune said, recovery “can take six to 12 weeks.”
Why does aging leave adults vulnerable to injuries? Keswick Multi-Care Center vice president Maria Johnson Darby said physiology is partly to blame. “As we age, we lose muscle, about one percent a year,” Darby said. However, she notes: “Our lifestyle can dramatically impact the aging process. Nutrition, exercise and socialization all play a role.”
Seniors can bounce back from injuries more quickly with a few dietary changes. “Fluid and protein are key,” said Darby. “Protein needs increase as we age, particularly if we are ill or hospitalized. Protein helps you heal.”
Both Darby and Fortune emphasized the role of exercise in speeding recovery and increasing resistance to re-injury.
“As we age we go through cellular changes that … make our bodies a little less effective at being able to do certain things,” said Fortune. “Exercise can bump up the efficiency of your cells, which in turn bumps up the efficiency of your body. It doesn’t mean that as you get older you have to get weaker or more tired. It just means that as you get older, exercise becomes more important, because you have to support your cells too.”
Exercise also helps “maintain vitality,” said Randy Siy, outpatient program coordinator at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. Siy recommends “swimming, yoga and low impact activities. They’re especially good for beginners or people who have arthritis in their joints.”
For people new to exercise or recovering from an injury, Fortune said: “I love water activities.” Fortune also recommends light walking and finding a “good community program that supports seniors.”
“Consulting with your doctor or medical professional is the most important first step regarding the appropriate kind, level and type of activity that’s best for you and your situation,” said Darby. “Having said that, for many people of all ages, walking is the best exercise. In addition, low-impact aquatic exercises, swimming, yoga or chair yoga and tai chi are also great exercises for older adults.” Darby said Keswick and other programs offer the Arthritis Foundation’s evidenced-based program, Walk With Ease, that teaches people to safely incorporate physical activity into everyday life.
Darby said older adults and those recovering from injury shouldn’t shy away from using any supports needed “to keep their bodies moving” such as “walking sticks, canes, walkers, other assistive devices, bannisters.”
Although starting slow is best, it’s important for older adults and their physical therapy team to steadily increase the challenge.
“We don’t often challenge seniors as much as we should,” said Fortune. “A grocery bag, on average, weighs about 10 pounds. A gallon of milk is about eight-and-a-half pounds. … I’ll find oftentimes, people don’t want to push seniors to lift anything heavier than three to four pounds, but in their daily life they’re picking up things that are heavier than that — even picking up their walker and putting it in the car.”
“You don’t want to push too hard, beyond what’s necessary for day-to-day living,” Fortune contended. “But you don’t want to not push hard enough.”
Phil Golden, Springwell’s executive director, said he’s seen seniors “bounce back from things like hip fractures, even hip replacements. In a good, structured plan, I’m amazed at how fast they can bounce back, being better than they were before the surgery and eliminating the pain.”
Golden recalls a Springwell resident who “had to stop three times to rest on the way to the dining room.” After six months in an exercise program, “he was a totally different person.”
“I would say it’s never too late to start,” Golden said.
Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.