This article was written in partnership with Finding Balance, an initiative of the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health.

Based on 2021 census data from Statistics Canada, the population of seniors is expected to triple by 2046. This quickly aging population will put additional pressure on our health care and long-term care systems, which have already been burdened by other pressures like the COVID-19 pandemic. Care and housing for seniors will continue to become an increasing concern. Long waitlists for long-term care facilities clog up beds in acute-care hospitals and more caregivers will be needed to tend to those in hospitals, seniors’ facilities and at home.

In Alberta, falls among seniors are a significant contributor to the strain on our health care system and the increasing need for long-term care. With one in three older Albertans falling each year, falls are the leading cause of injury in this age group. Every day, 101 Alberta seniors are treated in emergency departments for injuries due to a fall and 27 of them need to be admitted to hospital for treatment, of which the average stay is three weeks. In 2021, the health care cost for falls in Alberta was $290 million. Furthermore, falls can significantly impact lifestyle and independence for older adults. After a fall, many seniors are unable to live the way they want—this can include being afraid of falling again and not being able to live in their own homes or make their own decisions about how they spend their time. No one wants to become a burden to their loved ones.

The impact of falls has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic with many older adults having to live in quarantine and in isolation. This reduced their access to exercise, activity, socialization and interaction with peers, which—in many cases—impacted their physical, mental and emotional health. The change in lifestyle had a tremendous negative effect on Alberta seniors and has resulted in a pandemic of deconditioning. Deconditioning refers to all the physical, mental and social consequences from being inactive and sedentary for a period of time or from reduced intellectual and social stimulation. One major health consequence of deconditioning is falls. The good news is that the effects of deconditioning are generally reversible and the risk of falling can be lowered.

Keeping Well for older adults

In 2021, we teamed up with the Injury Prevention Centre to help create a timely resource called Keeping Well to support Alberta seniors as they emerged from the pandemic. Keeping Well is a free booklet designed to help older Albertans keep well, active and connected to lower their risk of falling and stay independent. It contains useful information for seniors ranging from activity and exercise tips to advice on fall prevention, healthy eating, medication use, vision care, mental health and avoiding fraud and scams.

Last year, a total of 15,000 copies of Keeping Well were distributed across the province through seniors’ resource and recreation centres, service organizations and independent living residences. Information about the resource was also provided to physicians, nurses and pharmacies to share with patients. Based on last year’s successful distribution of Keeping Well and as pandemic health measures continue to ease, we’re continuing to help the Injury Prevention Centre promote this practical resource to support the well-being of Alberta seniors.

Whether you’re an older Albertan looking to reduce your risk of falling in the future or you work with older adults, Keeping Well can help older adults prevent falls and stay independent.

The free booklet is available to download online at findingbalancealberta.ca and printed booklets can be ordered online, by phoning 780-492-6019 or emailing info@findingbalancealberta.ca.

Read on to learn more about fall prevention.

How to prevent falls

Falls are not a normal part of aging. It’s important to keep active to improve your strength and balance as you age. Strength and balance can be improved at any age, through with practice and physical activity. Maintaining good eye health and reviewing your medications are also important factors in reducing your risk of falling.

Regardless of age or abilities today, there are things you can do to prevent falls.

Reverse deconditioning

If you’ve recently been inactive, sedentary, isolated or alone, below are some ideas to reverse deconditioning:

  • Stand up every hour—try setting an alarm to help you remember.
  • Take every opportunity to move—make your bed, prepare meals, garden, fold clothes or do other household chores.
  • Regularly walk indoors or outdoors whenever possible.
  • Do a physical exercise program at your own pace and according to your abilities—check out your community facilities for classes and programs or try out the exercises in Keeping Well.

Improve balance and strength

When you challenge your balance, build strength and are active, you can enjoy benefits like living independently, climbing stairs, yard work and gardening, playing with grandchildren, fishing, and biking. People with strong legs and good balance are less likely to fall.

Strong muscles are important for being mobile and steady or stable. Weakness in your lower legs puts you at a higher risk of falling while strong lower legs provide better balance function.

Balance is about controlled movements and keeping your body upright whether you’re moving or standing still. Good balance allows people to move without tripping when doing things like stepping off a curb, getting into a vehicle, carrying groceries or going up and down stairs. To help avoid a fall, balance involves an awareness of where all parts of your body are in space, how fast you can react to unexpected changes or movements and having the necessary muscle strength to stay upright. To improve your balance, it’s important to move your body in a variety of ways.

Below are some suggestions on how to improve your strength and balance. Before getting started, be sure to ask your health care provider about the best exercise program for you.

  • Aim for 30 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity or exercise at least five days each week. Moderate intensity means you breathe harder while vigorous intensity means you’re out of breath.
  • If you’re just getting started, build up slowly and add a few minutes each day.
  • Do activities you enjoy, such as walking, biking, gardening or swimming, or explore new activities like pickleball, dancing, fitness classes, golfing, curling or snowshoeing.
  • Include activities that strengthen both arm and leg muscles.
  • For balance, try exercises in a standing position, yoga or Tai Chi.
  • For strength, try wall push-ups, stair climbing or exercises with weights, bands or body weight.
  • For endurance, try walking, dancing, gardening, bicycling, cross-country skiing or swimming.
  • For flexibility, try stretching, yoga or Tai Chi.

Added bonus: Beyond improving your balance and strength and reducing your risk of falling, there are many other benefits to physical activity such as the following:

  • Improved sleep.
  • Increased energy.
  • Healthier heart and lungs.
  • Improved memory and attention.
  • Improved mood and sense of well-being.
  • Increased confidence and reduced fear of falling.
  • Reduced risk of chronic diseases like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Maintain good eye health

As you age, it’s important to visit your optometrist or ophthalmologist for a comprehensive eye exam every year to identify any changes to your vision that could increase your risk of falling. Some examples of changes that affect our vision as we age include the following:

  • Development of eye conditions that reduce vision such as cataracts, glaucoma or macular degeneration
  • Eyes taking more time to adjust to changes in light or glare.
  • Decreased depth perception, making it harder to judge the height and depth of things like stairs and curbs.
  • Finding it harder to identify objects, especially at night.
  • Finding it harder to judge the distance from objects.

Below are some tips to help you improve and maintain good eye health.

  • Keep rooms well lit.
  • Use high-wattage bulbs.
  • Keep lighting similar in every room.
  • Use nightlights or motion sensors in the bathroom and hallways.
  • Mark the edge of stairs with coloured paint or treads.
  • Wear sunglasses, even in the winter.
  • Speak with your eye doctor about multi-focal lenses.
  • Discuss any changes to your eyes or vision with your eye doctor.

Did you know? Albertans 65 years of age and older are covered for one eye exam per year under the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan. There is also a program to help seniors with low to moderate incomes cover the cost of basic optical services, such as eye surgery, medication and non-prescription sunglasses. Learn more on the Government of Alberta website.

Stay on top of your medication

Reviewing all your medications and supplements with a doctor or pharmacist can also help prevent falls. The more medications you’re on, the greater your risk for falls. As you age, your body’s ability to remove medications from your system can lessen and lead to higher risk for side effects. Some prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, vitamins and herbal supplements can increase your risk of falling. For example, medications for sleep, anxiety and depression can make you dizzy, sleepy, confused and unstable on your feet.

Below are some tips to help improve your medication habits.

  • Always follow the instructions and prescribed doses when taking medications.
  • Use only one pharmacy to fill your prescriptions—this allows them to keep track of all the medications you may be on.
  • Keep a current medication list in your wallet and at home.
  • As your pharmacist about pill packs.
  • Don’t share prescription medications.
  • Return expired medications to your pharmacist.

Get your free copy of Keeping Well

Keeping Well can help you prevent falls and stay independent. The booklet contains a myriad of useful information ranging from activity and exercise tips to advice on fall prevention, healthy eating, medication use, vision care, mental health and avoiding fraud and scams. Download your free copy online at findingbalancealberta.ca, or order a printed version online, by phoning 780-492-6019 or emailing info@findingbalancealberta.ca.

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