Why We Fall

I recently went to Wisconsin for a speaking engagement, and I went out for Chinese food with one of my most ambitious former students. She shares my passion for improving dementia care, and she’s not afraid to be straightforward in her advocacy for residents that live at the nursing home where she works as an assistant administrator.

She said, out of the blue, “You know what you should do? You should do something on falls and dementia.”

When someone tells me I should do something, I’m usually pretty unlikely to do it. However, it occurred to me that I’d never written about dementia and falls before. My former student was onto something. And I credit myself, really, because her brilliance is a direct result of my excellent teaching and advising.

Just kidding, Taya. You were brilliant before you were my student.

As you might know, dementia increases a person’s risk of falling. And falling is a big deal. A person can break a hip or get a concussion. Nursing homes and hospitals have an incentive to minimize falls…they don’t want bad press and they don’t want to get sued.

I have said for years that I could run a nursing home and guarantee zero falls. I’d just keep people in bed on sedatives all day. It’s a great solution, right?

Obviously not.

Here’s the thing about caregiving–and it’s not so different from parenting in a way. We want to minimize risk and maximize independence. But where is that balance? How can we encourage as much autonomy as possible while limiting risk?

Well…let’s start with talking about why people with dementia fall.

First of all, balance is a brain function. Dementia is a condition of the brain. In fact, it’s the cerebellum that controls balance, fine muscle movement, and coordination. When dementia impacts that part of the brain, it’s no surprise than balance is affected.

So, yes, dementia itself brings challenges with balance. Once again–louder–for the people in the back….DEMENTIA ISN’T JUST ABOUT MEMORY LOSS. (Should I make t-shirts that say that? I’m sick of saying it, and people still aren’t getting it.)

There are other ways in which dementia increases a person’s risk of falls.

I talk a lot about how dementia changes how an individual experiences the world. Dementia literally changes how you see the world. It’s not that someone is wrong with your eyes if you have dementia, but your brain may be less effective in interpreting what your eyes see.

Someone with dementia might not interpret stairs correctly, leading to a fall. Perhaps their brain doesn’t correctly interpret food that has fallen on the floor, and they slip. Maybe they don’t notice the guide bar on the wall because it’s the same color as the wall, so they don’t use it, which increases the risk of a fall. Hey–interior designers–you can help reduce falls by making some small changes to homes and facilities. Seriously, we need so much help in this area.

Fatigue among those living with dementia increases falls. It’s tiring having dementia, and we are all more likely to fall if we are exhausted. I don’t have dementia (that I am aware of), but I have a bad habit of stumbling at night because I’m too tired to pick my feet up.

People with dementia may be more tired during certain times of day, and–no surprise–falls increase during these times of day. A person with dementia who is allowed adequate time for rest is less likely to fall. In addition, falls are minimized when we allow a person with dementia to create their own daily rest and wake patterns rather than dictating these patterns. If your loved one struggles with fatigue in the afternoon, try to structure their day so they can nap or at least rest quietly during that time.

People with dementia, just like the rest of us, need to eat, to drink, and to use the restroom. If people are hungry, thirsty, or need to relieve themselves, they are likely to try to get up and meet that need solo when perhaps a little bit of help might be useful. If we regularly ask people if they need to use the restroom, for example, they might be less likely when they try to get up to do this without assistance. If we keep water nearby so they don’t have to get up and find water when they are thirsty, they might be less likely to fall.

Memory impairment itself can result in falls. Sometimes dementia (or another condition) takes away the ability of someone to walk without assistance, but if they don’t remember this they may get up and try to walk anyway. Someone once told me that she didn’t know why her dad kept trying to get up after he had knee replacement surgery. In fact, he didn’t remember that he had undergone the procedure. People forget they have walkers or canes. I once met a guy who was a lower limb amputee. He couldn’t remember why he was in a wheelchair. He was surprised every time he tried to stand up and realized he only had one leg.

“What’d they do with the other one?” he’d ask.

Sometimes poor judgement leads to falls for people with dementia. I know that I’m not stable when I walk on ice, so I avoid walking on ice. If there’s a slick floor, I walk a different way so I don’t slip. I’m a relatively clumsy being, so I try to set myself up for success. (In this case, success means not ending up on my read end on the ground.) I may be a klutz, but my good judgement keeps me from frequent trips to the emergency room.

But what if my judgement became compromised? What if I lost that inner voice that told me it’s likely I will end up on the ground if I try to walk across ice? Well, that’s what can happen with dementia. People with dementia might lose the ability to instantaneous assess the risk of a situation and therefore put themselves in environments that can be risky.

A guy recently told me how he recently took his father who had Alzheimer’s on a fishing trip. He looked over at one point and saw his father standing of the edge of a cliff, inches from a fall that would have certainly ended his life. When he was told to back up, he shrugged and told his son to stop trying to control him.

I would be negligent if I didn’t mention the role of medications in falls. I would argue that many individuals with dementia are over-medicated. There are times when residents in nursing homes and assisted livings are given medications when a change of environment, a modification of caregiving strategy, or a simply friendly conversation might have done the trick. Medications should absolutely be an option in treatment of the symptoms of dementia, but I promote the idea that medication shouldn’t be the first intervention strategy.

Why? Medications have side effects. Those side effects can include dizziness. They can include orthostatic hypotension. What is orthostatic hypotension? You know that feeling of lightheadedness when you stand up after sitting or lying down for a while? It’s due to low blood pressure. I recently learned that this is called orthostatic hypotension. It’s a common side effect for many medications, including anti-psychotics. It’s also what happens if you stand up too quickly after a 90 minute massage, get dizzy, and accidentally knock over a vase–not that I’d know.

I recently visited a nursing home and met a man with Parkinson’s who told me his hobby was going outside in his wheelchair and collecting rocks. I told him that I thought this was fantastic way to spend his time and encouraged him to keep at it. He mentioned that the nursing home staff wasn’t fond of his rock collecting. I was puzzled.

Later, someone who worked in the nursing home told me that his rock collecting often resulted in him falling out of his wheelchair. In addition, he was bringing dirty rocks inside the nursing home–not exactly a great thing for a setting where staff worked hard to create a sanitized environment.

That’s the hard thing.

We want people to be able to make their own decisions. We want them to be independent and to participate in their own self-care. We want them to feel like human beings rather than caged animals. We want people to do what makes them happy.

But we don’t want them to fall. And falling here is meant both literally and figuratively.

So we try to find that balance. And sometimes we make the wrong call.

We think Dad can take a shower without help and he falls. He breaks a hip.

We think Grandma can still go up and down the stairs to do laundry. She tumbles down the steps and is on the ground for over 24 hours before someone stops by.

We think our friend is still okay to drive but he gets into a fender bender. We think our wife can go to the dinner party she wants to attend but she leaves in tears because it’s so overwhelming. We think Grandma can make the potato salad for the 4th of July Celebration, but we realize later that she made it a week in advance and let it sit out. And the whole family celebrated the 4th by fighting over the bathroom.

These are real stories of care partners who errored on the side of autonomy. And later felt so guilty, so dumb, so ineffective.

We sometimes get burned when we try to maximize independence.

Yet when we try to maximize safety people living with dementia feel limited and argue that their quality of life is being compromised.

When do we step in?

When do we step back?





6 thoughts on “Why We Fall

  1. If only we knew the perfect answers to these questions! I would LOVE to hear more of your thoughts on fall prevention, specifically within memory care facilities. There are several residents at my mom’s place who are fall risks and are frequently hopping up from their chairs, causing staff members to yell and go running across the room to catch them. Obviously being proactive about meeting their needs is important, but I feel like there has to be a better way to respond when a person who’s a fall risk does stand up!


  2. My main symptom at the moment is constant dizziness and prevents me from walking more than a few steps. This, in turn, causes other problems and I am now seizing up. Fighting so hard not to end up in a wheelchair, but can’t get the physio xx


  3. Yes! Anytime you need help shouting to the back row that there’s more to dementia than memory loss, I’m here for you. 😉 Thank you for this — we’ve been working on the balance between safety and independence for the last ten years with Mom. Life is a dance, not a forced march, with or without dementia.

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  4. Thanks for talking about this issue. I have a diagnosis of FTD and have recently been having regular falls. It’s a problem that doesn’t often get talked about with dementia – my neurologist keeps talking about new symptoms like this as atypical presentation, when in actual fact, is seems like a pretty common symptom of dementia. It’s so frustrating (both the falling and the ignorance).

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