Anyone who’s ever had a fragile grandparent knows that falls are especially dangerous for the elderly — and Jimmy Carter has had three falls in the past six months.
Those tumbles — one in May and two in October — left the former president, age 95, with a broken hip, a fractured pelvis and 14 stitches on his forehead.
Then came the greatest challenge of all: a operation to relieve the pressure that had accumulated in his brain after he hit his head.
Carter was released from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta Wednesday morning after a two-week stay.
While frequent falls are a sign of increasing frailty, geriatricians say there’s no reason Carter can’t make a full recovery.
“I would definitely not want to say that this is the beginning of the end,” said Dr. Eric De Jonge, chief of geriatrics at Capital Caring Health in the Washington, DC area.
Resilience is key.
“It has to do with reserve — how robust an individual is after fall number one, fall number two, and then fall number three,” said Dr. Daniel Stadler, director of geriatrics at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
The first step in recovery is to figure out why Carter has had so many falls in such a short period of time, and try to fix the problem.
“It might be vision, or blood pressure, or a side effect of his medicines,” Stadler said. “It might be his balance. The ability to sense the ground under your feet diminishes with time.”
Then rehab would begin, which would include physical and occupational therapy.
The fact that Carter was so active just before his falls bodes well for his recovery. In recent months, he’s taught Sunday school in Plains, Georgia; built Habitat for Humanity homes; spoken at conferences; and traveled to events, including President George H.W. Bush’s funeral in Washington last year.
“That’s a really good prognostic sign for his recovery,” said De Jonge, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “If he was doing carpentry in October before the major event, I think it’s likely that he could regain that function.”
Carter has recovered from medical adversity before.
“I had a bad, bad impact of cancer three or four years ago in my brain and in my liver, but I’ve overcome that with a very high, highly organized treatment,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer earlier this year.
Of course, three falls and two surgeries within six months is serious, especially at Carter’s age.
“It’s hard to be 95 and not have some degree of frailty,” Stadler said. “It wasn’t years between hospitalizations, but just months.”
He added that even if Carter can’t go back to his regular schedule of activities, he can still enjoy a fulfilling life.
“There does come a time when the mountain is too steep to go back to baseline. But can he get back to a good quality of life? Certainly — especially with good family and social support,” Stadler said.