Study looks at older adults’ use of mobility devices, incidence of falls

Older adults often use canes, walkers, wheelchairs, and motorized scooters to improve their mobility. At the same time, an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent of adults aged 65 and older fall each year, calling into question the efficacy of these devices in preventing falls.

Robert Wallace
Robert Wallace

To learn more, a team of researchers that included Robert Wallace, UI College of Public Health professor of epidemiology, recently examined the prevalence of mobility device use among community-dwelling older adults in the United States. The investigators, led by Nancy Gell of the University of Vermont in Burlington, also looked at the incidence of falls and participants’ worry about falling according to the type and number of mobility devices used.

Based on data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, the researchers found that 24 percent of the U.S. population aged 65 and older reported using a mobility device in the last month, with one-third of this group using multiple devices. Consistent with previous studies, mobility device use increased with age. Women, ethnic and racial minorities, and those with lower education, obesity, greater disease burden, and impaired balance or coordination more commonly reported using a mobility device.

The incidence of falls and recurrent falls was not associated with the use of multiple devices or any particular type of mobility device. The researchers also found that older adults who used only a cane had a higher incidence of worry severe enough to limit their activity than those who used other devices. The results were published in the May 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The study is believed to be the first to describe the prevalence of using more than one mobility device. The authors suggest that the use of multiple devices may be related to a number of factors, such as environmental and terrain differences (e.g., cane for inside the home and walker for outside the home) or a change in physical capacity requiring more or less external support (e.g., hip fracture recovery with transition from walker to cane).

The researchers also note there has been an apparent 50 percent increase (from 16 percent) in the use of mobility devices since 2004. This increase may be attributable to greater disability, greater longevity, correction for unmet needs in previous decades, or greater acceptance and use of mobility devices among older adults.

Understanding the determinants and outcomes of multiple device use, circumstances that lead to multiple device use, and determinants of non-device use in those with a previous history of multiple falls may assist with fall prevention efforts, the investigators write.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Study looks at needs of nursing home staff in caring for patients with dementia

An estimated half of nursing home residents have a diagnosis of dementia. Caring for these individuals can be difficult, since dementia is frequently accompanied by challenging behaviors that include anger, depression, hoarding, inappropriate sexual behavior, paranoia, and physical and verbal aggression.

In the past, such neuropsychiatric disturbances were often treated with antipsychotic medications. More recently, however, it has been recognized that such treatments can involve serious side effects, including an increased risk of death, and there has been a push for improved dementia care without drugs.

With this in mind, University of Iowa researchers from the Carver College of Medicine and College of Public Health surveyed directors of nursing (DON) at Iowa nursing homes about their comfort level in caring for patients with dementia. They also sought to identify any unmet needs the DON might have in terms of education and support.

Surveys were sent to the directors of nursing at all of Iowa’s 431 nursing homes. They included 22 questions about treatment of dementia patients, education of nursing home staff, satisfaction with training on managing dementia behaviors, antipsychotics used at the home, and confidence in non-drug treatment approaches.

A portrait of Ryan Carnahan of the University of Iowa College of Public Health
Ryan Carnahan

“There are situations in which antipsychotic use in dementia patients is considered appropriate, particularly when a patient’s behaviors are dangerous to themselves or others and don’t respond to other interventions,” notes study co-author Ryan Carnahan, associate professor of epidemiology. In these cases, ongoing monitoring to evaluate the medication’s effectiveness and observation for adverse effects is necessary.

The researchers received 160 completed surveys for a 37 percent response rate. The results indicated that almost three-quarters of DON were not satisfied or lukewarm about their training for managing challenging behaviors, and 63 percent said they would like more training for themselves and their staff. They preferred facility in-services, pocket guides, and online resources as ways to obtain the necessary information.

The study also showed that the typical director of nursing who was more confident in managing patients with challenging behaviors was more likely to have a board-certified psychiatrist available to make visits to the nursing home and was more likely to be satisfied in their training for managing these behaviors.

“This research represents the importance of managing nursing home residents with challenging behaviors using non-medication interventions,” says Jeanette Daly, study co-author and associate research scientist in the Department of Family Medicine. “The DON are busy, and mandatory nursing home in-service education sessions could facilitate needed education on this topic.”

The results of the study also helped inform the development of an educational program and clinical decision aids that have reached thousands of health care providers across the U.S. and in other countries, Carnahan adds. The goals of this program are to support optimal evaluation and non-drug management of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia, and to educate providers on appropriate use of antipsychotics and monitoring for adverse effects. Resources to facilitate discussions about antipsychotic use with patients and families are also available. More information can be found on the Iowa Geriatric Education Center web site at

The study was published in the journal Geriatric Nursing. The other members of the research team included Camden P. Bay with the Department of Epidemiology and Barcey T. Levy with the Departments of Epidemiology and Family Medicine.