As we grow older, changes in our functional abilities occur. Some changes are so subtle that we don't notice them right away.
For example, we begin to do the "senior shuffle," walking with our feet wider apart and skimming our feet on the floor as we walk. We no longer have a normal heel-toe pattern and might find ourselves tripping - on a rug, on a step or even when walking on a level surface.
It is then that we realize our balance is off, and we become afraid of falling.
Fear makes us stop doing activities that we formerly did without thinking, i.e. climbing a ladder, walking briskly, going up and down steps or getting into a bath tub.
Falls and medication mismanagement are the major reasons seniors are hospitalized, so falls are a legitimate concern.
There are many reasons for being off-balance, such as muscle weakness, inner ear problems, side effects from medication, or decreased vision. Fortunately, there are ways to regain balance.
Strengthening the core muscles that hold your body erect as you shift your weight, and stretching exercises to improve joint flexibility are very important. Activities like yoga or tai chi do not put stress on the joints and can greatly improve both strength and flexibility.
Many senior centers have line-dancing classes, which not only strengthen muscles and improve balance, but also are really fun.
There are also exercises one can do while seated. Examples can be found on YouTube. Another source is www.PreventSeniorHospitalizations.com, which has several videos entitled Prevent Senior Falls: Balance and Assessment Exercises. These exercises are easy and doing five to 20 repetitions can truly improve your balance and decrease the possibility of a fall.
If exercising while standing, use a chair or stand at the kitchen sink and hold on for balance. Always use your stomach muscles to keep your body straight and don't bend side to side from the waist. Start with only five repetitions.
Some exercises to do are:
- Side leg raises - Push leg out to the side keeping the knee straight and toes straight ahead
- With feet apart, shift weight slowly from side to side, keeping body straight and shoulders level
- With knees slightly bent, lift toes off floor for five seconds, relax and repeat, lifting heels off floor
- Rise up on toes standing straight as if a string is attached to the top of your head, keeping your body erect
- Stand on one leg for as long as you can while holding on
If the imbalance worsens, see your doctor for an evaluation.
Rachel Carson, a retired physical therapist, is the owner of Home Instead Senior Care serving The Lowcountry since 1997.