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.