Several years ago, Bob Leavitt fell.
His hands were full, so the 85-year-old wasn’t able to reach out an arm to brace himself against the impact. Instinctively, he went limp as the ground rushed up to meet his body.
Afterwards, he learned that he did the right thing by not tensing up.
That’s according to Betty Perkins-Carpenter of Fairport, who has spoken throughout the diocese and who travels the country teaching seniors how to prevent falls and minimize injury. Perkins-Carpenter’s book, How to Prevent Falls: Better Balance, Independence and Energy in 6 Simple Steps, is in its fifth printing and has sold more than 100,000 copies.
Perkins-Carpenter, who attends Fairport’s Church of the Assumption, advocates for fall prevention, improved physical fitness, balance exercises and stretching in bed to minimize falling. Statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show falling is on the rise and poised to run up costly hospital bills as baby boomers and their parents age, she said.
“The CDC is calling it a national public-health issue, and it won’t be long before falls turn into an epidemic,” Perkins-Carpenter said.
According to the CDC, more than a third of all adults 65 and older fall in the U.S. each year. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among older adults, according to the CDC, and these injuries claimed the lives of more than 13,700 people 65 and older in 2003.
“The total direct cost for falls among older adults in 2000 was about $19 billion,” according to the CDC’s Web site. “Given the growing population of this age group, this cost is expected to reach $43.8 billion by 2020.”
Other fall-related facts from the CDC include:
* About 1.8 million people 65 and older were treated in emergency departments for nonfatal fall injuries in 2003. About 460,000 of those patients were hospitalized in that year.
* In New York, 38.8 percent of men and 22.3 percent of women 65 and older died from falls between 2000 and 2003, according to the CDC’s age-adjusted statistics.
* Despite men having a higher death rate from falls, CDC statistics show women are more likely to have nonfatal fall injuries.
Perkins-Carpenter said statistics like these can scare seniors into leading even more sedentary lives. The fear of falling, she said, has kept some people from leaving their house. The CDC’s site agrees.
“Many people who fall, even those who are not injured, develop a fear of falling,” according to CDC fact sheet on falling. “This fear may cause them to limit their activities, leading to reduced mobility and physical fitness, and increasing their actual risk of falling.”
That’s why Perkins-Carpenter’s tips go beyond the advice of ridding a home of trip hazards.
“They are sick and tired of hearing about how they have to be well-aware of carpets,” she said.
Instead, she details six strategies in her book to grab seniors’ attention and help them incorporate fall prevention into their daily lives:
* Pay attention to the last stair step. Don’t talk while using stairs, count the steps and don’t turn around on the stairs to talk to someone.
* Before standing up out of bed, stretch to regain your sense of balance.
* Practice balance exercises with grandchildren or family members to make them fun. Perkins-Carpenter said falling can hurt an entire family financially and emotionally, which is why the entire family should work together to prevent falls.
* Dance with a pillow. This off-beat tip is designed to help people get used to a wide range of motion forward, backward and side to side. Meanwhile, switching the pillow from arm to arm allows people to strengthen both sides of their bodies.
* Bounce a ball to strengthen depth perception. Start with a large ball, and work your way down to a small one.
* Practice falling each day by limply slumping into bed or onto a couch. It’s a technique Perkins-Carpenter calls the “10-martini slump,” referring to how free of tension a person’s body is after 10 martinis. Although a person may get bruised when falling limply, he or she will most likely avoid fractures and serious injury, she said.
“Slumping in practice will help you slump automatically when it happens,” she said.
Leavitt said Perkins-Carpenter’s tips have spurred him to exercise at least four times a week. He said because of her suggestions, he feels he has better balance and posture.
“I have read it (Perkins-Carpenter’s book) very carefully, and I try to follow it as close as I can,” said Leavitt, who splits his time between Fairport and Pultneyville.
He said he and Perkins-Carpenter are in several organizations together, and her presentations on falling to those groups are always popular, he said.
Carol Look of Fairport said Perkins-Carpenter also held an audience rapt at Look’s Parkinson’s support group.
“She does have a group of tips that do work,” Look said.
That may be because Perkins-Carpenter has had a lifetime of experience with physical fitness. She is a former Olympic diving coach who founded the nationally known Fit by Five, the fitness program for preschoolers. She also founded Senior Fitness Productions and the former Perkins Swim Club in Rochester.
Perkins-Carpenter, who has a doctorate in health administration and who has served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is creating a DVD to go with her book.
She said she plans to continue her work fighting falling for the rest of her life.
“It’s getting more and more important every day,” she noted.
EDITOR’S NOTE: How to Prevent Falls: Better Balance, Independence and Energy in 6 Simple Steps by Betty Perkins-Carpenter is available for $16.95 at www.senior-fitness.com.