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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Keeping falls in context as we navigate aging

I really intended to find a nice happy topic to write about today. What with the general gloom swirling about these days, it seemed time to feature something to smile about.

I’d smile if I could do so without it looking bizarre adjacent to the now-healing soft tissue damage on my face, so today’s Front Porch column will not be the ray of sunshine I’d hoped it would be. It’s about falling, and the fear of falling, things those of us in our 70s and beyond know all too well.

I fell recently. Nothing spectacular, as falls go, just a simple ordinary fall – although there’s really no such thing for those of us who are older.

I am in the midst of writing a number of stories for this newspaper’s annual high school graduation issue, which comes out June 9, and I’ve been out interviewing students, mostly in Idaho. I was meeting one lovely young lady at a coffee shop in Coeur d’Alene one day in April, when I caught my toe on the curb as I was stepping up, and over I went.

I broke the fall with my face and left shoulder. I had no sooner righted myself to a sitting position when two men came out of Starbucks to assist. They helped me to my feet and asked if I was OK, if I felt dizzy.

What I was, was embarrassed, and also angry at myself for having taken my eyes off my feet when stepping up on the curb. I always think about and watch my feet when going up or down anything because my balance isn’t what it used to be. I get around OK as long as I pay attention.

But that morning I was on auto pilot for some reason, not a good place for this older person to be.

There was noticeable road rash on my left cheek and I did feel a little soreness in my shoulder, so I went into the ladies room to wash up. I got a cup of tea and waited for the student to arrive. I apologized to her for my face, making a joke about never arguing with a sidewalk because the sidewalk always wins, and the interview went on.

Not the best interview I ever conducted. I could feel my face swelling as we spoke, and I was starting to feel shaky inside (a bit of shock, I think). Also, I had a little cut on the outside of my right hand that I hadn’t been aware of, so as I took notes, there was a smear of blood following my hand down the page as I wrote.

Not quite the professional posture I hoped for, or normally present.

My face has had a bit of a crime scene appearance for a few weeks. A few days after the fall, my shoulder sprouted the typical big old purple and green bruise that looks much more dramatic than it was damage-wise. And life went on. I was fortunate nothing was broken.

Still, falls like these – ground level falls, they’re called, ones that occur from a standing position – are actually serious, and potentially deadly for older people, or, as the literature refers to us, “the elderly.” Many of us have porous and fragile bones because of osteoporosis or are prone to light-headedness due to assorted ailments or the medications we take, or are just wobbly for variety of reasons. And even the healthy and fit among us fall.

But when we go down, we often don’t come up again the same people we were before the fall.

I’ve read a fair amount about the subject and can relate to most of it. Here is some of the data: Even minor trauma from a fall can cause older adults to be hospitalized, beginning a serious downward spiral in our health. We are also three times as likely to die following a low-level fall compared with individuals younger than 70. And 1 in 4 Americans age 65 and older falls every year.

Serious business, these little falls.

Even if we emerge from a tumble without bodily injury, the experience – especially if it wasn’t a debut performance – damages the sense of self. Confidence in our abilities to function in the world diminishes.

There is a documented common urge to begin limiting ourselves in ways that are in fact counter-productive. The less we move, the less able we are to move about safely. Or we become less socially engaged. But the more we withdraw from society, the more isolated and emotionally unwell we become.

I know it. I recognize elements of it in me. I fight it.

The thing is to be smart about our new reality. There’s a lot of information out there about how to fall-proof our homes, how to keep our bodies more limber and other good advice to keep us on our feet and moving.

We need to adapt our lives, not stop living them. I think here of a perfect role model for safe senior living – my good friend Carol, a woman in her mid-80s, who keeps up with her book groups and wears a brace on one leg, folds up her walker into her car and drives off to play Scrabble weekly at a senior center.

For me, I try always to be mindful of my feet and where they are. I wear appropriate shoes. I hold on to handrails, even when I don’t feel the need. If I walk any distance, especially on uneven ground, I use a walking stick for a little extra balance.

But that fear of falling is always nagging at the back of my brain. I want it to be present enough so that I pay attention, but I don’t want it to take over my life and cause me to stop living the best life I can. The day may come when I am impaired somehow and have to downshift. I just don’t intend to go there voluntarily or sooner than necessary.

With caution and good measure, I can keep upright. I hope we all can.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@comcast.net.

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