Q and A: Falling risks, even with a walker

Question: Is it true that walkers can cause people to fall? My wife uses one and she seems to have trouble handling it. 

Answer: Walkers, canes, and other assistive devices are a tremendous help in staving off falls and for good reason: Every year about a million and a half older people are injured from a falling accident. But now, even walking aids can play a part in causing a fall. The National Center for Injury Prevention has found that about 47,300 people aged 65 and older suffer injuries from falls every year using walking aids that land them in the Emergency Room. Walkers are seven times more likely to be involved in a fall than a cane.

Women in their late seventies and eighties are at the highest risk of tripping while using a walker, resulting in fractures, bruises, sprains and abrasions. More women than men use the device and people who rely on walkers suffer from overall weakness, poor balance control and less ability to bear weight. The majority of accidents occur in the home while one out of five takes place in nursing homes. At least one-third of those using the device at the time of the fall were walking.

Researchers claim patients should be better trained on how to use a walker and have it fitted to their body frame. They also call on manufacturers to consider making improvements on the design of walkers. Okay, so now what do we tell your wife? First, call the place where she bought the walker and ask if she can come in and have someone show her how to use it properly, adjust it, or ask her primary care physician to prescribe a physical therapy or occupational therapy evaluation to do the same.

The Mayo Clinic offers six safety tips on using a walker. Here they are:

1. Types of walkers: If stability is a significant concern, a walker without wheels is a good choice.  But if you need help walking, a two-wheel walker allows you to place weight on the walker as you move. If you don’t need to lean on the walker for balance, you’ll walk faster with a four wheel walker.

2. Selecting a grip: Most walkers come with plastic grips, but you can add foam or soft grip covers. If you have trouble grasping with your fingers from arthritis or other joint pains, a larger grip may relieve stress on joints.

3. Fitting your walker: Adjust it so that it fits your arms comfortably to reduce stress on your shoulders and back. First, place your hands on the grips. Your elbows should bend at a comfortable angle. Second, relax your arms at your sides. The top of your walker should line up with the crease of the inside of your wrist.

4. Taking your first step: If you need to place weight on the walker as you move, start by pushing the walker forward and keep your back upright.

5. Don’t lean over the walker: Stay upright as you move. Always step into the walker, rather than walking behind it. Be careful not to push the walker too far in front of you or set the handles too high.

6. Walker accessories: Many people trip with their walker while they are carrying something. You can add trays to carry food and other items, a pouch or a basket. Some walkers also have seats, so you can take a rest.

Information provided by Dr. Linda Rhodes, Finding Your Way, 250 Real Life Questions and Commonsense Answers http://lindarhodescaregiving.com/index.htm