Colors, noise level key to reducing falls in the elderly

That armchair in the common area might be more than just ugly. It might actually be contributing to falls if your elderly patients look at it and get dizzy from the pattern.

Jennifer M. Bottomley, PT, MS, PhD, a geriatric rehabilitation program consultant and president of the section on geriatrics of the American Physical Therapy Association in Alexandria, VA, outlines these common environmental hazards that can lead to falls among the elderly:

Poor color distinction: When the beige wall flows into the beige carpet or floor tile, the elderly patient with poor depth perception may have trouble determining his or her location in the room, and the proximity to furniture or a doorway. It’s better to have contrasting colors so the corners and edges can be distinguished. The doorway can be painted a different color than the wall, for instance. Furniture also should stand out clearly from the wall and floor.

Colors that agitate: One key to reducing falls among the elderly is to keep them calm, rather than agitated and restless. Restraints and medication usually are not acceptable ways to calm patients, but the proper environment can help patients relax. Pastel colors, for instance, have been proven to have a calming effect. A bright red or bright orange room, on the other hand, can lead to agitation.

The wrong music in the background: Like the colors in the environment, the music you play in the background can influence whether your patients are calm or restless. Led Zeppelin is out; the 101 Strings Orchestra is in.

Small patterns on furniture and carpet: Upholstery and carpet should be in either bold colors or large patterns. The smaller patterns can cause a vestibular reaction for the elderly patient, resulting in dizziness from looking at all those tiny dots or flowers.

Too much noise in the patient area: Elderly patients often are more prone to distraction by noises in their immediate area. If they hear an overhead speaker making an announcement, or a television playing loudly across the room, they may be startled or confused by the sound. That can cause them to turn suddenly toward the sound, perhaps thinking someone is speaking to them, and turning the head quickly can lead to dizziness.

"We’d rather see the nurses use beepers and the desk clerks with phones that use a light instead of a bell," Bottomley says. "Studies have shown that when patients are distracted by a noisy environment and turn their heads suddenly, their risk of falling goes up dramatically."