Ageing, risk and the falling body

Authored by: Stephen Katz

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415631143
eBook ISBN: 9780203097090
Adobe ISBN: 9781136221033


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Joseph Sheldon, the British geriatrician whose survey The Social Medicine of Old Age (1948) became a leading reference for identifying the features of ‘normal’ population ageing, was also one of the first physicians to recognize the problem of falling. In his paper, ‘On the natural history of falls in old age’ (1960), Sheldon categorized 500 falls (experienced by 202 people) primarily into ‘accidental falls,’ followed by ‘drop-attacks’ (falling without warning), ‘trips’ and ‘vertigo.’ Some falls happen for unknown reasons. While Sheldon offered medical explanations where possible, what strikes today’s reader is his attention to his subjects’ experiences, including the challenges to getting back on their feet after falling. They understand their falls as a part of a bodily negotiation with gravity and thus they ‘complain bitterly of inability to preserve their balance as they did when they were younger’ (Sheldon 1960: 1685). Environments (including stairs), illumination, slippery surfaces and obstacles matter as much as physical stability. In the end, Sheldon says that falling in old age is fascinating ‘because at this stage of life Nature resembles the engineer who may release the unexpected’ (Sheldon 1960: 1690).

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