Caring Currents

Watching Dad Dodder: How Much to Help (to Prevent a Fall) and How Much to Leave Him Alone?

Last updated: Apr 14, 2009

Canes and Umbrellas
Image by Andres Rueda used under the creative commons attribution no derivs license.

For years the only time I thought about accidental falls was whenever that infomercial came on TV with its classic line, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!"

Now the subject is on my mind every time my Dad gets to his feet. At 87, he moves like a slooooow-motion, shuffle-footed version of his old self. My late mom fell and broke her pelvis the summer before she died; her mother missed a chair and broke her hip at 95, then spent the next (last) four years of her life in a nursing home. I'm terrified Dad will be next.

One in three people over 65 who live outside of assisted care fall each year. That's a lot of falls. And one third of them cause injuries requiring medical treatment.

Some news just out today unfortunately comes too late for my elders, who were in their 80s and 90s by the time I thought to worry about falling. A major review of more than 100 studies confirms that exercise programs "“ tai chi or other group classes, or those done at home "“ seem to be the best way to prevent falls among people over 65.

I say "too late" because tai chi isn't likely to suddenly alter Dad's shuffle (as if he'd even be willing to attend a class, much less be able to get there regularly). Don't get me wrong. Exercise classes obviously work. They improve balance and strength. What also works, according to the new Cochrane Library review: Measures like staying off ladders and putting anti-slip soles on shoes in icy weather. Some preventative measures were found to help only narrow groups "“ vitamin D for those who lack it, cataract surgery for those who need it.

Also smart: Knowing which [questions to ask your parent's doctor about preventing falls] (

All good advice. BUT given my dad's advanced state, I've moved onto wrestling with other everyday dilemmas like these as I try to keep him from falling:

  • Do I do it for him or let him do it?

"You sit; I'll get the coffee," I find myself leaping up to say. "I'll fetch your sweater." Doing everything for Dad is more expedient and safe. But he's not an invalid. And he likes to do stuff. So more and more often, I try to err on the side of not taking over.

Try is the key word. It also means watching him like a hawk and sweeping the floor for potential dangers "“ constantly.

  • How little walking can we get away with?

I know walking is great exercise. Yet any time he moves it's a potential accident! He especially likes to walk around the backyard and I know the fresh air is good for him --- too bad about the sticks that risk tripping him and the weeds that distract him (and entice him into bending "“- slooowwly "“- over to be pulled).

So I let him walk "“ while dogging him and making chirpy conversation to cover my hovering.

One lifesaver: A handicap parking tag, which makes it easier to go places (where he can walk, like Target) without risking a long exhausting and excruciating stroll through a parking lot.

  • Do I point out every potential danger or let him?

I literally bite my tongue so I don't chirp "Be careful! Watch out!" like a hyperprotective mama every time he takes a step. Stairs send my adrenaline coursing.

A few days ago I warned him about a bit of plastic tarp sticking up from a bed in the grass. Which of course made him sloooowly bend down and try to pick it up --- and then laboriously cover it up with nobody else would trip over it.

I kind of wished I'd bit my tongue. On the other hand I know I've saved his neck a few times. So I do keep on warning, while trying to sound casual.

  • How can I get him to use a cane?

My slow-yet-spry 90-something aunt wisely carries a cane wherever she goes --- she's neither proud nor dumb. My Dad's another story. He has a fabo sturdy one a son-in-law handcarved for him. But that's "too nice." Regular plain canes are "for old people." My dad doesn't need one because, he says, he's "strong like bull."

I worry that if he tumbles, my supportive elbow might not be sufficient.

The conventional advice is to appeal to reason, but Dad also has dementia. (Funny, he forgets that he can no longer lift up his feet but remembers being "strong like bull.")

I'm open to suggestions on that one.