I should fall so gracefully. In my dreams. Actually, in my dreams, I battle invading enemy forces from another era, I run fast and hide from those who want to harm me, and I jump like a cat and swing from overhead obstacles like a monkey. But, in my awake life, I trip over invisible "objects," I lose my balance without warning, and I stumble sideways frantically trying to get the foot that's free across the other as in a ballet move to balance me before I end up on the ground. I always thought these things happened because I am a klutz, and there's no question the derivation of "klutz." This delightful Yiddish word was obviously introduced into Yiddish by someone who knew my great-great-great grandmother, Goldie Klutzberg. I came by this naturally. I mean who else ever got on a horse for the first time and fell off the other side?
No wonder, then, that Parkinson's [PD] crept in with a pattern of falls I assumed was klutziness. But there was a very worrisome difference: I had spent 24 years on the Fire Department, and I had learned to be more careful of my footing--or else. I was also running regularly and cycling, and my sense of proper footing and balance was better in my 40s than ever before. But, early into my 50s, I started having tremors. By 60, other symptoms were there, and THE DIAGNOSIS was Parkinson's. One thing jumped--wrong word here--out of my list of problems was the falling for no reason. And there were the "almost falls" or staggering and not falling for distances of up to 10 yards. I had also started
falling over from a standing position. Most common was catching the toe of my shoe on some invisible "object" on the floor when, in actuality, the floor was perfectly smooth and held absolutely no tripping hazard. But, when there were tripping hazards, I invariably misjudged them or--as I suspected--they reached up and made me trip.
As cruel fate would have it, my body started this downward spiral about the same time my really old parents started theirs. Then I was working as a fire investigator for the Nashville Fire Department, and it was my job way too often to investigate fatalities. We had approximately 25 a year; the very old and the very young were disproportionately represented in that statistic. Not being comfortable around "the very young," I had made it my mission to take everything I knew about fires (a lot), building construction (a lot), and human behavior in fire (also a lot) and go out into neighborhoods to help save the elderly. What I didn't know was that they weren't afraid of fire--they were afraid of falling.
Now I am the one who is afraid of falling. So I have developed some of my own tricks to keep that from happening--hopefully. These are my short and simple DOs and DON'Ts:
- Keep exercising your legs so that you can pick your feet up more than usual when stepping over a visible obstacle. You can even sit in a chair and march, lifting your knees as high as possible. I often walk with an exaggerated step on days I just don't feel right and fear falling the most.
- Walk using your arms for balance. That means swinging them. If you aren't swinging your arms, consult with a physical therapist who knows PD patients.
- Under no circumstances do 2 things at once. Don't walk back from the mailbox and read the mail at the same time. Don't turn and talk to the person next to you. When you're walking, WALK.
- Never pivot. We aren't ballet dancers or cats. Stopping and turning on a dime are not in our repertoire of graceful movements. If you need to turn around quickly, make a circle.
- Walk at a comfortable pace for you, not for those with you. Wear shoes that don't grip surfaces like carpet, decking, or pavement. If there's a railing, hold it.
- Keep the space you have control over free of obstacles. Dogs, cats, and children can be taught to respect your fall potential. All of our animals respond to a firm "MOVE," and I remember that I was taught at a very young age that my Grandmother, who lived with us, fell easily. I was responsible for removing hazards and knowing what to do if we were alone.
- Door thresholds and weather stripping exist for one purpose only: to trip us. Watch for them, and learn to high step over them.
- Interior and exterior stairs are required by the model codes to be consistent. If someone you love dearly has porch steps whose risers vary from 6" to 8" or worse, tell them they're a hazard and a code violation. If you want to be nice--don't we all--then just be prepared to make those exaggerated steps.
- If your body and soul are telling you, "this is a bad PD day," then listen. Pay attention to your inner voice that says "REST TODAY."