Caring Currents

Elders Keep Falling a Secret for Fear of Losing Independence

Last updated: Oct 06, 2008

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Last week, my kids' babysitter rushed outside yelling at me to follow. Had a child fallen off a scooter or out of the tree? Not this time. There on the sidewalk was my neighbor, an elderly woman suffering from terminal cancer. She’d collapsed while trying to take in the garbage can.

My babysitter, bless her heart, was lifting the woman up and saying soothing words in Spanish, both women's first language. The neighbor was OK. Frail and a little disoriented, but not hurt. Then her voice became urgent. Could we please not tell her daughter, with whom she lives, that she fell? Could we keep this a secret? She was worried, she said, that her daughter would move her to a nursing home or hospice, and all she really wants is to live her last days at home.

Wow. Talk about a poignant moment. I flashed back to a conversation I'd had more than a year ago with an expert on falling from the Centers from Disease Control (CDC) after the agency had released its annual fall statistics. I can’t recall this woman’s name, and have long since tossed out my notes, but she talked about the problem of elderly falls and secrecy. It’s common, she said, for seniors to hide their falls from their family for fear of losing their independence. Ironically, this secrecy makes falling more dangerous, since the dangers of falls can be greatly reduced with prevention.

(Check out these posts on basic fall prevention, drugs that make people prone to tumbles, and high-tech prevention measures. Plus there are helpful questions you can ask seniors about a fall.)

Secret falls. Talk about a scary notion for anyone caring for an older person. Talk about a missed opportunity to take preventative action. This CDC source had some practical words of wisdom for caregivers:

  • If you see a new bruise, ask for details. Be gentle and supportive, hoping for an honest talk. If your older relatives seem self-conscious or defensive -- trying to brush off or downplay the bruise -- ask about falling. Emphasize how there’s lots that can done to reduce fall dangers so they can live safely at home.
  • If you see limping or painful movement, spend time getting to the bottom of it. As with bruises, if a senior downplays or denies an injury, bring up the danger of falling. Reassure the senior that many things can be done to fall-proof the house.
  • If in doubt, ask the seniors' doctor to have a private talk with them about falling. Many people are more comfortable revealing their fears and weaknesses with professional experts than with family members. Doctors can actually send a physical therapist to the house to do a fall evaluation and make fall-proofing suggestions.

In an ideal world, we’d all have open and honest communication with our elders, and secrets would be out of the question. In truth, this often isn’t the case. Losing the independence of living at home is so huge, such a major sadness, that it makes sense that some people will do anything to avoid it -- even lie.

As for my neighbor, I haven’t seen her daughter since the sidewalk incident. In all honesty, when I do, I’m not at all sure what I’ll say. My babysitter says she feels the same way.

Imagine by Flickr user Marcin Wichery under a Creative Commons attribution license.