Physical therapist and outpatient therapy manager Ellie Trumble, left, and outpatient coordinator Esther Zamora demonstrate how to take a fall risk test in the Aloha outpatient rehab unit at the Life Care Center of Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
HILO — If you’re bipedal, chances are you’ve done it.
Whether it’s tripping on a crack in the sidewalk, stumbling over a rambunctious pet, or slipping on a banana peel, falls invariably come with the territory of walking upright.
For many, a fall means a nasty scratch or a bruise. Often, young people manage to avoid a bad fall entirely, thanks to strong muscles and quick reflexes that help them regain their balance or catch themselves on the way down.
But for the elderly, who constitute the fastest growing segment of the population, a fall can result in grievous injury that ultimately leads to a loss of independence, and in some cases, even death.
Every five hours in Hawaii, a senior suffers a fall injury so serious that he or she must be hospitalized, according to data provided by the state Department of Health. In East Hawaii alone, an average of about 700 kupuna are transported each year to Hilo Medical Center’s emergency department due to injuries from falls. And those are just the ones we know about, said Stan Michaels, the state’s fall prevention coordinator.
“We think a lot of falls are underreported because of the way the data is collected,” he said Tuesday. “That number could be closer to 1,000 a year. That comes out to almost three every day. It’s fairly stunning.”
A fall can mean months or even years of recovery for elderly folks, said Chris Ridley, director of social services at Life Care Center of Hilo.
“You’re likely going to need extensive rehab afterward, and our whole family is thrown into turmoil,” she said. “Falls are a horrible thing. It changes your life forever. And you never quite recover.”
Falls are a big problem that can translate into a big drain on the health care system, Michaels added. Annually, the state spends about $118 million on hospital and physician charges related to falls, with 108 kupuna dying, 1,840 being hospitalized, and 5,715 being treated in emergency departments.
Beginning Saturday, the state Department of Health will kick off its Kupuna Fall Prevention Awareness Week in an effort to help Hawaii seniors learn about the risk factors that can lead to a fall, and get tips on ensuring that their homes and daily routines take those risk factors into account.
Among the offerings will be an athletic/wellness fair from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday at Sangha Hall in Hilo. Seniors are invited to attend and receive free screenings from Hawaii County Fire Department volunteers and Fall Prevention Consortium members to assess their risk for falling.
The test is simple, Michaels explained.
“It’s called a TUG test, which means Timed Up and Go,” he said. “They are asked to sit on a chair, and then stand up, walk 10 feet, turn around, come back and sit back down. Screeners look to see if they have a bad gait or any other signs, and they time them with the second hand on a stopwatch. A normal time for a person is 7-10 seconds. If it takes 14 seconds or longer, you’re starting to get pretty risky. If it takes longer than that, you could be ripe for a bad fall.”
Beginning on Monday, participating pharmacists will conduct free medication reviews, by appointment, for kupuna to check for medicines that could cause or contribute to a fall.
“They’ll be looking for drug interactions. We’re asking seniors to bring everything in the house that they take, not just prescription. If they take an antihistamine, cough syrup, ginseng. Bring it all,” Michaels said.
Participating pharmacies and their phone numbers on the Big Isle include:
• KTA, Puainako: 959-8700
• KTA, Waimea: 885-0033
• KTA, Keauhou: 322-2511
• Mina Pharmacy, Hilo: 935-3100
• Mina Pharmacy, Kona: 329-1000
• Sack N’ Save, Waimea: 885-2022
• Foodland, Waimea: 885-2075
In addition to next week’s offerings, Ridley and the staff at the Life Care Center of Hilo offer regular classes on fall prevention for area seniors, and they can help kupuna find physical therapy and other options for recovery and prevention efforts. Staffers can also help assess a person’s stability by using a machine that test’s one’s balance.
The fall prevention program consists of a two-hour class once a week for six weeks, Ridley said. The class can only take 10 participants at a time, so those interest in taking the classes are encouraged to sign up well in advance.
They can contact Ridley at 959-9151 or email email@example.com.
For more information on preventing falls, visit cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls.