29 July 2020

Media release

Leading physiotherapists concerned face masks will increase falls and injuries in older people are urging Australians aged 65 years and older to look down regularly while walking when they are wearing a mask.

From 22 July face masks became mandatory outside the home for Victorians in greater Melbourne and Mitchell Shire, and are recommended in all other Victorian regions. Many older people are choosing to wear masks outside the mandatory zones.

National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) Director of Clinical Gerontology, Associate Professor Frances Batchelor, says lower peripheral vision, or what you can see without having to move your head to look down, is restricted when you wear a mask.

“Normally when you look ahead while walking you have an awareness of the tips of yours toes, without having to tilt your head down. That awareness is cut to waist height when you wear a mask, so you can’t see where you place your feet,” says Associate Professor Batchelor. “In addition, many older people wear glasses and these can fog up wearing a mask.”

“This is a real concern for older people navigating uneven footpaths, gutters and steps. If they trip and fall it could mean more than a bruise or sprain. It could mean a broken hip and hospitalisation,” she says.

Although falls can happen at any age, people are more likely to fall as they get older. In Australia around 1/3 of people aged 65 years and over who live in the community fall each year.

Several risk factors contribute to this high incidence including: impaired vision, decreased muscle strength, decreased balance and the impact of medications.

Tips to stay safe while walking outdoors with a mask:

  • Look down regularly when walking, and especially when you are walking on an uneven surface or approaching a curb.
  • Look down when going up or down a curb or step, and use a support such as a handrail if available.

If wearing glasses, try the following to help prevent them fogging up:

  • Ensure firm fit over your nose, with glasses over the top of the fabric
  • Place a small piece of folded paper towel on the bridge of your nose between the mask and your face. This helps absorb moisture.
  • Clean your glasses with a small amount of dishwashing liquid to prevent fogging.
  • Use single vision lenses (in preference to bifocal or multifocal glasses) for walking outside if you have them.

University of Melbourne and Western Health Associate Professor of Physiotherapy Cathy Said said during the COVID19 pandemic there is a risk that older people’s physical strength and abilities may have declined because of diminished physical activity.

“Older people may not be going out and about as usual so may miss out on incidental exercise,” said Associate
Professor Said. “They risk losing functional abilities such as balance, which can increase their risk of falls.”

“It’s vital older people try to replicate the level of physical activity they had prior to COVID19 restrictions. People more frail and concerned about walking outdoors with a mask could look at options for exercising at home, such as the Safe Exercise at Home website,” she said.

The Safe Exercise At Home website (www.safeexerciseathome.org.au) was developed by physiotherapists and shares simple functional exercises for older people to increase activity levels while at home.

Associate Professor Batchelor says the tips to stay safe while walking outdoors with a mask will be posted on the Safe Exercise at Home website, along with more ideas and safety tips.

“A simple strategy like remembering to look down when wearing a mask could really prevent a lot of unnecessary pain,” said Associate Professor Batchelor. “Remember to mask up, look down.”

Note to editors:

The Safe Exercise at Home website, launched in May this year, was developed by physiotherapists from around
Australia with clinical and academic expertise, and is endorsed by the Australian Physiotherapy Association.

Safe Exercise at Home website

Associate Professor Frances Batchelor and Associate Professor Cathy Said are available for interview.
Media enquiries: Rebecca Matthews | 0414 980 452 | [email protected]