As we age, we’re more likely to have problems with balance, and balance issues can put us at risk for falls and fractures. There are more than a dozen balance disorders, and while not all balance disorders are a sign of a more serious underlying problem, they can all have serious consequences. Here’s how to spot some early warning signs of balance problems in your parents (and yourself) before a fall and what to do next.
What causes balance problems?
Balance can be thrown off by a surprisingly long list of things ranging from medication side-effects to heart disease. Many balance disorders are related to problems of the inner ear, but migraines, concussions, blood pressure problems, and nerve disorders can cause problems, too. It may take more than one trip to the doctor or a referral to a specialist to pinpoint the underlying cause.
When to see a doctor about balance problems
The National Institutes for Health says these symptoms warrant a check-in with a doctor:
- feeling unsteady
- feeling as if the room is spinning or as if you’re moving when you’re not
- feeling as if you’re falling
- feeling faint
- having blurred vision
- becoming confused about time and location
Keep a record of your parents’ symptoms along with when they occur and anything that seems to make them better or worse, to help their doctor figure out the cause of the problem.
You should also bring a list of your parents’ medications (or simply a bag containing all their medications) for the doctor to review. Some drugs can affect inner ear function and lead to balance problems, including diuretics, blood pressure drugs, sedatives, and some types of painkillers and antibiotics.
How to stay safe with balance problems
When you see your parents’ doctor, ask for suggestions for home safety. For example, because balance problems raise your risk of a fall, it’s important to clear your home of as many slip-and-fall hazards as possible. The CDC’s senior falls prevention guide recommends removing throw rugs, moving furniture that’s in the way when you walk through the home, and keeping piles of stuff and electrical cords off the floor.
If your parents have stairs in your home and their doctor says they can use them, make sure the lighting is bright enough for them to see steps clearly and make sure the handrails are secure and in good condition. If your parent or your doctor feels stairs aren’t safe, you may need to help your folks move their bedroom furniture and other items downstairs for safe access.
When do your parents need extra help?
If your parents live alone and have balance problems, encourage them to carry a personal emergency response system or a charged cell phone so they can call for help if you fall. If their balance problem is long-term or increasingly severe, or if your parents are falling, it’s probably time to start looking at your family’s options for in-home health help or an assisted living community where your parents can have company and assistance at all times.