Fear of Falling

In the past few months, almost weekly I’ve been hearing about people in their 60s and 70s who had to be rescued after falling while hiking on local trails. My first reaction was disbelief. How could someone just fall off a trail? Were they near a steep slope and not paying attention?

But then it happened to me. I was hiking on a rocky trail when my feet went out from under me while I was going downhill. One minute I was standing and the next I was on the ground. In the past, when I had started to slip while hiking on similarly steep slopes, I was able to regain my balance before falling. What happened that made this different?

I’m not sure, but something like that makes you lose trust in yourself. Last year I went hiking with a friend who, I could see, had lost confidence in her body. We were hiking on a trail I thought was relatively easy, but the rocky trail was a challenge for her. I had never seen the rocks as an obstacle, but since my fall, I’ve become more wary, especially when the rocks are wet. We take our mobility for granted until we lose it.

When I watch young people skateboard off stairs or children on the playground tumble from the top of the slide, I’m amazed and envious. When you’re young, you’re fearless. I want to be invincible again, like when I was a child, riding my bike off curbs, swinging from the monkey bars, or even jumping from the roof, as one friend did.

But, as we got older, we lose our balance more easily. Most of us are not as strong and flexible as we once were. It doesn’t help that we’re taking more medications, some of which have side effects that cause dizziness. Medicines for depression, sleep problems, high blood pressure and diabetes can interfere with our equilibrium; the problem gets worse if we take four or more medications. And women, especially, are more prone to broken bones due to osteoporosis.

It’s not just a fear of broken bones or scraped knees. According to the CDC, falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among persons over 65 years old. How many stories have you heard of otherwise healthy older seniors dying after a bad fall?

My father loved bike riding, but at some point, maybe in his 80s, it became obvious his balance wasn’t good enough to continue. I think it broke his heart, maybe as much as having to give up his driver’s license. Like him, I love cruising the bike paths around town. But I ride with more trepidation, knowing my balance isn’t as good as it once was and that my reaction time is slower.

Several times in the past year I’ve almost been hit by oncoming cyclists who came into my bike lane as they rounded a blind curve. Each time I’ve had to react quickly, and I’ve brooded over what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to get my bike out of the way: a bad fall, possibly broken bones or concussion and a downward slide of my physical abilities.

I’m practicing defensive bicycling these days by watching all around me for possible hazards. And I’ve added a bell to my bike, so when I go around those blind curves, my bell will hopefully warn oncoming bikers that another bicyclist—an “elderly” one—is approaching.

I have friends who have stopped going for walks in winter, afraid of slipping on icy sidewalks. I’ve given up ice skating, and other friends have given up skiing. But how do we balance our need for exercise and getting outside with being safe? I was talking to a friend about this, and we agreed you need to find a balance: be more careful and more aware but don’t let the fear stop you from doing things you love. It’s a hard balance to find, but one that’s becoming increasingly necessary as we gingerly step into a new phase of aging.

5 thoughts on “Fear of Falling

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  1. This is a part of aging that is a constant challenge. One of my reasons for leaving Colorado was that winter was too hard on my body, and too risky. I’ve always admired your love of being out in nature–in all kinds of weather–and your ability to hike and bike, your willingness to continue to do those things. And we have to be aware of the diminishing returns. My big idea (pre-pandemic) for celebrating my 75th birthday (which was last year) was to have a party at the roller rink just up the road. I haven’t been on roller skates for more than 25 years and I really wanted one last go around the rink. Then the whole world shut down. Would I have done it? I’ll never know. I am very aware of how much my body has changed since the last time I put on roller skates, how much I have to think through basic moves like getting out of a chair or stepping up or down a curb. I think we do find that balancing place for doing the things we love–with great respect for our bodies and how they have served us for so long and continue to move us through the risky landscape that is life.

    Great topic. Thanks for opening this up.

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    1. Thanks, Verna. And, as much as I love snow, I have to admit I’m glad we haven’t had any yet. It makes getting around a lot easier and less scary. I think I’ve had to admit that I can’t ice skate anymore, and I started as a young girl in the Chicago suburbs, so I’ve been doing it a long time. But just one small bump in the ice could mean a bad fall. Anyway, I love the image of you on roller skates. Maybe we just hang onto our memories.

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  2. For some years now, every time I go to the doctor, the receptionist’s first question has been, “Have you fallen?” I’ve always been able to answer “no,” but I’d swear it’s made me almost paranoid about falling (I’m 78, overweight, and very “deconditioned.”) My biggest concern has been having to step into a tub to take my shower — so much so that I’ve thought about a remodel/conversion. Very expensive cure for paranoia. As for walks, I worry about how I’ll get up if I fall. I no longer have the dog I thought could provide a bit of stability to assist. Now I think about getting a staff or poles to pull up on if I fall. Hiking? No, I’m years past trusting myself on an uneven surface. And haven’t been on a bike since I was a kid. I even worry about the rocks the lawn crews displace onto the driveway. Having several relatives who’ve fallen and broken bones doesn’t reassure me, either.

    I envy you. Get some trekking poles if you haven’t already, and keep on truckin’.

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    1. Susan, thanks for sharing your concerns. I feel very lucky that I can get around and do both bicycling and cross-country skiing. I always use poles when hiking or skiing, and that’s saved me several times. I definitely recommend them. And I think a step-in shower is a great idea, although I have no idea how much that costs.

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  3. My current strategy is to replace the concept of “fear” with “acceptance of the risk.” Not in the sense of “giving up” or “ giving in.” Rather, as you note, going slower and being more intentional in how I move. When I allow myself to feel fear, I’m more accident prone and become occupied with whether I should stop doing the things I most love – e.g., fly fishing. I know the day will come when I objectively can’t. But in the course of mentoring a young boy to safely cross rivers, I’ve taught myself some important lessons. Pick a line that avoids water that is treacherously deep and swift, go slower, use a wading staff, ask someone who’s stronger and more nimble to “buddy wade” through tough spots. If falling is inevitable, relaxing the body can prevent more serious injury so the worst case scenario is is you get wet, a bit banged up and embarrassed. I don’t mean to minimize the very real risks of broken bones and head injuries – an older acquaintance suffered serious brain injury from a bike fall from which he never fully recovered and, I think, accelerated his death. But I truly believe fear can also accelerate the aging process, particularly if it prevents us from doing the things that make life worth living.

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