It seems inevitable that at a certain age we will fall. Joints become less stable, osteoporosis takes its toll, reaction time slows—yet on good days, we may feel the same as we did at 50 as we exult in running around and getting things done. In that frame of mind, we assume those who do fall are really old, in bad shape, ill, or careless like the ones in the commercial: “I’ve fallen down and I can’t get up.”
“That is not me,” we think—until it is. The experts who see the results of all these falls warn us about creating a safe house, with non-slip rugs, grab bars, stair rails, and so on. Being responsible adults, we make those changes, or maybe our worried children make them for us. Given our quick recovery from small slips, we still assume we won’t fall. We become careless and keep zipping around.
And then it happens: the real elder fall. Maybe I lost focus because I was feeling so good. But, somehow, in a moment, I was on the cement floor of the garage. Maybe it was Alfie. He bounced against my weak knee, bad dog. I could not rebalance fast enough, I spun around, and I landed hard on my left shoulder.
Before I finish my story, please listen to me as if I am your fairy godmother. Keep your focus, especially when you are walking around animals and small children. Lift your feet if you hit uneven pavers or anything with the front of your shoe. (Toe-stubbing is a common cause of falls.) Go downstairs slowly; hold onto the rail. You can still run upstairs, as falling up is usually more interesting than dangerous. Hold on to someone if the terrain is unstable; a cane or walking stick is limited protection. OK, now. “Promise me.”
I knew as I went down that this was a serious fall. The sound of my shoulder breaking was clear. The shock led to me screaming for help. Alfie ran away. Ron came quickly and we very carefully got me up. I did not want to go to an emergency room. I have been there through the long waits with friends too many times, but I knew I had to do something. We called my doctor and luckily he squeezed me in within three hours.
With one look at my face and its excruciating pain, he told me I had a broken shoulder. X-rays confirmed that diagnosis, so now I have six to eight weeks with my shoulder immobilized and months of rehab—so perhaps I will listen to my own advice. “Jennifer, you are not 50, you have rheumatoid arthritis, you have osteoporosis, you ran around without paying attention, and you have been very, very bad.”
Week one: I feel anger and deep depression. Why live if this is my future? It is spring, gardening is my passion, the weeds will win, I am so bored. Any movement hurts, so I cannot even put on a bra.
Week two: With the miracle of Amazon, I have a wheeled walker, a grabber, hygiene tools (even a lotion spreader), long-handled clippers, and drugs. A good grabber can pull weeds. My gallows humor has returned.
I have to sleep more-or-less upright and wear a sling at all times. My entire arm is deep purple, as is one side of my butt. It is ugly. My sweet husband has solved most of my daily hassles but, as usual, he doesn’t tolerate whining and does not see the need to entertain me because I am bored.
I have reached the “this too shall pass” phase of recovery. I can do lots of things. Laundry only takes one hand and my grabber stick is a great help. My grandchildren arrive in two weeks, so I’ve hired a friend’s granddaughter to help me and drive us places. I haven’t told my son about the fall because I feared he would worry and cancel the kids’ annual trip. I am smiling as I write this.
Once again, repeat after me: “I will focus when I am walking about. I do not want to end up like Jennifer.”
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.