Fear of Falling

Writer: Teresa Madaleno

So here is something I want to share that is rather personal, but I think others may benefit from what I am about to explain. As people get older the chance of developing basiphobia, which is a fear of falling, increases. Those who are afraid of falling tend to avoid physical activities that in fact can prevent them from falling. Doctors who research falls and hip fractures now say exercises, including those that focus on balance, are great at lowering our apprehension and can mean that as we get older, we will be less likely to fall.

I lost my father a few years ago and strongly believe if it weren’t for his fear of falling, he would not have died at that time. Donato (Dan) was an avid sports fan and golfer. He drove to the ice rink for all his grandchildren’s hockey and soccer games. He coached hockey for many years, he hit the links at least 3 times a week. Dan also owned his own home, cut his own one acre property, did his own shopping, snow shoveling etc. He was self-sufficient. However, one day he tripped over something he dropped in the hallway outside a washroom in his home. That was the beginning of the end.

Teresa & her Dad (Dan)

Teresa & her Dad (Dan)

Since he had difficulty getting up, didn’t have a cell phone and could not get to his landline, he laid on the floor for over 24 hours, desperate for someone to come help him up. His frustration and his attempts to get up led to a mild stroke. My siblings and I thought it would be okay. He was an active guy so with some physiotherapy and TLC he would get back on track. Besides, this was the same man that had brain surgery five years earlier and stunned doctor’s at Toronto Western with his incredible mental and physical recovery. What we were not taking into account however, was that he might be afraid of falling again.

No matter what we said or did, no matter what the doctors and physiotherapists said or did, there was no way he was going to attempt to stand-up or walk again. As a result, he grew weaker and weaker. We exhausted all attempts at physical therapy. Special equipment to encourage him to take steps and tempting him with visions of returning to the golf course did not work – nothing worked. Eventually, his will to go on faded.

Dan quickly lost strength not only in his legs, but in other body parts. It became difficult for him to even lift a fork or spoon in order to eat. Staying hydrated and nourished was difficult even with the help of dedicated nurses and doctors. One week before his 85th birthday, his body gave in and his life ended.

I have many friends, neighbors, associates, and clients who have elderly relatives. I would hate for them to have to watch their loved one go through what our Dad experienced.

Susan Friedman a geriatrician at the University of Rochester Medical Center who studies falls has reported that even after extensive physical therapy many people become depressed and frail. She calls the fear of falling a “vicious cycle” and suggests that meditative exercise like Tai Chi can help lessen apprehension in those who may experience a fall.

If you have an elderly parent Tai chi may be a good preventative measure for them. The National Council on Aging states that every 13 seconds in the United States, an older adult is treated in the emergency department for a fall and every 20 minutes, an older adult dies as a result of a fall. The numbers are much the same in Canada.

The recent research suggests that exercise is the best way to prevent falls and reduce fear of falling. In 2014, a review of multiple studies on fear of falling and various exercises, including Tai Chi, showed that exercise provides significant benefit when it comes to improving balance, coordination and simply walking. One study, conducted in the United States found that Tai chi was more effective than any other form of exercise.

According to the U.S department of Health and Human Services Tai Chi, which involves moving the body slowly, gently and with awareness of deep breathing, has multiple physical benefits that give people of all ages’ confidence in their body’s strength. Tai Chi includes, aerobic exercise, coordination, flexibility, and balance. The practice has been known to ease pain and stiffness thus encouraging the elderly to participate more freely in other day-to-day activities.

There are some studies underway to test the use of virtual reality exposure therapy as a way to treat people who have a fear of falling. Virtual reality exposure therapy or VRT is a method of psychotherapy that uses virtual reality technology to treat people with anxiety disorders and phobias. It is a primary treatment for PTSD.

Geriatric specialists admit that Tai Chi isn’t for everyone, but insist that exercise of any kind can help improve strength, balance and confidence, especially as we age. If you know someone who is getting older and is sedentary, I urge you to get him/her moving. If you know someone who is active, but has had a fall please consider that they may suffer from basiphobia and do whatever it takes to get him or her help. Traditional physiotherapy is important, but non-traditional therapies and/or psychotherapy like VRT may make the difference when it comes to sustaining life.