Avoiding Injuries as We Age

Health, Home, Home & Family
on January 27, 2011
Courtesy of John E. Barnes Lorraine Barnes, 96, maintains her home in Heber Springs, Ark., with a little help from family members, including son John and daughter Lisa.

At age 96, Lorraine Barnes is happy to be living in her own home in Heber Springs, Ark. (pop. 6,432), baking cherry pies, reading and enjoying visits with her two children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. With help from her family, and by literally watching her step, Barnes is one of the lucky older Americans who are "aging in place."

"I live in my own home; it's very comfortable," she says. "I don't use a cane or walker. I do my own housework. I still cook and make pies for the kids."

"She made me a cherry pie for Christmas, and she cooked a turkey," says her son, John E. Barnes, 62, of Little Rock, Ark.

Barnes has made some changes in her household to make life easier, however. She rearranged her furniture, for example, so that she can hold on to one piece at a time to steady herself as she walks through her home. "I'm not a complainer—I just take my difficulties in stride and go right on," she says. "But I watch now where I go."

As we get older, changes in our bodies as well as illnesses and mishaps can force us to make lifestyle changes—sometimes dramatic ones. While we can't stop Father Time, understanding—and acknowledging—the aging process, and taking preventive steps, can help us avoid injuries at home, in the workplace and while pursuing fitness and sports activities. And it literally can add years to our lives.

"In the last 100 or so years, we've doubled our life expectancy," says Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, an orthopedic surgeon in Havertown, Pa. But the body's frame hasn't caught up, he adds. "There's a mismatch between longevity and durability, and durability is the issue we've ignored for the most part."

Americans are living longer, but many are living longer with chronic medical conditions, points out Elinor Ginzler, director of livable communities at AARP in Washington, D.C. "We have the benefit of modern medicine that keeps us alive longer with these chronic conditions. [So] we do have an issue about making sure we're safe and comfortable in our homes as we're living longer."

Here are some of AARP's suggestions for making a home safer for older adults:

  • Make sure there are handrails on both sides of steps.
  • Secure area rugs with double-sided tape.
  • Review lighting throughout the home and upgrade wattage and amount of lighting if needed.
  • Replace doorknobs with easier-to-operate lever handles.
  • Attach reflective, no-slip tape to uncarpeted stairs.
  • Place a bench near home entrances.

Mid-life matters
It's not only senior citizens who are dealing with "aging issues," DiNubile says. "Around the age of 40, we start getting some internal changes in the musculoskeletal system," he says. "A lot of this is subtle and under the radar."

DiNubile, a baby boomer himself, coined the term boomeritis to refer to the wear and tear, weaknesses and injuries many experience with their frame as they grow older. "Baby boomers are active people trying to stay active, but doing so on a frame that's not so cooperative," says DiNubile, who wrote the book FrameWork – Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones and Joints to help adults deal with their aging bodies.

Here are some of his suggestions for helping to keep the body fit and injury-free:

  • Stay active for life. "Being sedentary is not an option. You've got to be active."
  • Spend adequate time warming up and stretching before exercising. "You want to warm up first, which means to break a sweat, and that can be done with any simple aerobic or cardiovascular activity, whether it's jumping jacks, running in place or riding a stationary bike," he says. "Then do your stretching."
  • Make sure exercise routines include equal amounts of cardiovascular activity, strength training, flexibility exercises and core work, which strengthens the front abdominal area, lower back and muscles around the upper pelvis. "By having a strong core—a strong center—you really make yourself much less vulnerable to injuries," DiNubile says.
  • Practice good nutrition.
  • Give your body a chance to adjust to changes in your exercise routine. Older bodies don't adapt as quickly as younger bodies, so allow plenty of time for rest and recovery. "You can't treat your body at 40 or 50 the way you did at 20," he says.
  • If you sit all day at work, be sure to get up, move around, take breaks and stretch your wrists and forearms several times daily. If you do physical work, maintain a healthy weight and stay strong.

"Watch how you do what you do," DiNubile advises. "Watch how you bend and lift, do preventive exercises, and you'll be more resilient, durable and less vulnerable," he says.

"You just have to be smarter. You have to listen to your body."