After a beautiful vacation day spent boating around Martha's Vineyard (with no cell phone coverage), I came back to our cottage and noticed eight missed calls. Never a good sign.
When I finally reached my brother, he uttered those two dreaded words, "Mom fell."
My 84-year-old, active, vibrant, still-working mother fell and sustained a compound fracture of her femur.
That makes Mom among the 33 percent of U.S. seniors who are hospitalized each year due to serious falls. And, as a senior care specialist, I'm aware that falls are the leading cause of fractures, hospital admissions for trauma, loss of independence and injury-related deaths among people over 65.
Still, when it happened to my own mother, I'll admit that I wasn't completely prepared. And while I try not to be superstitious, I remembered that bad things sometimes happen in threes. The day after my mother's accident, my 20-year-old daughter took a tumble while jogging and fractured her knee. And to make matters worse, I had an unfortunate mishap while water skiing a few days later (the water ski clobbered me) and I needed eight stitches right above my eye. So within a 24 hour period, we had three generations of injured women. But my biggest worry was still my Mom.
First, the good news: Like most seniors who are mentally sound and physically active, my mother will survive her injuries. After a period of limited mobility and physical therapy, she will likely go back to being independent. The bad news is that seniors who sustain one serious fall are at increased risk of falling again.
For the benefit of those who haven't faced a "fall" crisis, let me share a few things to consider. I hope you won't need any of this information, but better to be prepared.
1. First, get finances in order. Although I have power of attorney for my mom, her bank did not have the requisite paperwork on file that would allow me to access her account, pay her bills and handle her affairs while she recuperated. We fixed that oversight. Make sure some level-headed member of the family has the ability to move funds, keep the utilities on and deal with insurance claims.
2. Take a seat. Viewing your parents' home and your home from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair is a great way to identify barriers and safety hazards. You can make some immediate changes -- like moving furniture, picking up loose throw rugs, relocating decorative items -- and then plan for widening doors and building ramps for more long term accommodations.
3. Study transportation options. Isolation and loss of lifestyle are two major complications of falls, both of which can lead to depression. For a senior who, until the fall, still drove themselves around town, the loss of mobility is a huge life change. Investigate wheelchair-accessible public transportation, specialized buses geared for disabled citizens, private car services and other assistance. Even if you plan to help Mom or Dad get to most of their appointments, it's helpful for you, and your mobility-challenged senior to have choices available. My Mom had medical appointments in Boston, two hours from her home. We hired a driver for those trips, which would have been difficult to navigate otherwise.
4. Call your local senior center. There may be items you'll need temporarily that you can "check out" from the center, eliminating the need to buy one. (For example, we got a shower chair from the center near Mom.) Senior centers also can provide information about other services you may need.
5. Investigate available in-home services. Home health aides, meal delivery services, prescription deliveries, housekeepers, even in-home hairdressers are available in most cities (our site offers this nationwide). Some of these services are targeted to seniors and housebound medical patients, while others are routine services anyone can access.
6. Decide who will do what when. Chances are your recovering senior has still-mobile friends, as well as family members who are willing to help out. Just make sure that your brother knows he's the one paying the utilities, and your sister is aware that she's on the schedule to drive Mom to the doctor, and that your daughter still plans to spend an evening watching old movies with Grandma.
7. Plan for entertainment. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had never been able to use her Netflix account. She has a subscription, but she hadn't put any movies in her queue. Since she and I love to talk about movies, I imagined movies as a big part of her recuperation entertainment. I learned of, and fixed, the Netflix problem and movies are back on the menu. Maybe your senior is a tech-savvy person who needs an over-bed table for his or her laptop, or maybe you'll want to subscribe to a premium cable channel, or stock up on season sets of a favorite TV series. Just make sure that low-mobility amusements are available.
My mom is responding well to therapy, she's healing as quickly as a woman her age can be expected to heal, and her mind is sharp. Will she be driving herself across the state anytime soon? That's hard to say. Mom has been in a wheelchair for two months and we are hoping she can bear weight again soon. For the time being, she is practicing patience, getting the therapy and support she needs and maintaining a positive outlook.
Sometimes the very ground you walk on can feel pretty shaky when your stable life is marred by a fall (or three). Planning ahead may not prevent a fall, but it may prevent you from falling apart. And it can make getting back on your feet again just a little bit easier.