By Encarnacion Pyle, The Columbus Dispatch
Focused on Christmas shopping, Bill Tenney didn’t see the Slippery When Wet sign until he already had tripped over it. The fall at a local mall resulted in back surgery for Tenney, 67, of Clintonville.
“Falls are not something to be taken lightly,” he said.
Tenney knows all too well the devastation that falls can wreak, especially on older people, even when they’re healthy. “My mother broke her hip in her last fall, and it quickly led to her final days,” he said.
To aid in his recovery, Tenney is among the participants in an OhioHealth class aimed at preventing falls. The program includes lower-body-strengthening exercises, a home visit, group discussions on topics such as home hazards, and talks by specialists on how vision problems and medications can increase the risk of falling.
Six months after the program ends, the group will meet again to talk about the changes they’ve made in their lives.
“Too often, people are afraid to confront their falling because of denial, embarrassment or pride,” said Michele Stokes, the director of OhioHealth’s John J. Gerlach Center for Senior Health. “We want to empower them.”
Falls, costing billions of dollars a year, are the leading cause of injury-related hospitalizations and death among Ohioans 65 or older, said Bonnie K. Bur-man, the director of the Ohio Department of Aging. “Falls are an epidemic that pose a threat to the independence and vitality of the 2.3 million golden Buckeyes living in Ohio.”
Such falls are logged every 2 1/2 minutes on average, resulting in an emergency-room visit every eight minutes, two hospitalizations each hour and three deaths each day, Burman said.
Severe injuries such as hip fractures and head trauma can make it hard for older adults to get around or live independently and can increase the risk of early death, she said. Even people who don’t hurt themselves can develop a fear of falling that causes them to limit their activities, increasing their risk of falling. It also can lead to depression.
“The most-important thing for people to know is that falls are not a normal part of aging and are largely preventable,” Burman said.
The state has rolled out a wellness program called Steady U Ohio to educate senior citizens and their loved ones and caregivers on ways to prevent falls. The initiative includes balance-and-exercise classes; fall-risk assessments; and tips on how to prevent falls, such as installing a night light along the route between the bedroom and bathroom.
The program includes a push to make stores and restaurants “fall-free zones” and to ensure that nursing homes have sufficient lighting to prevent falls. High-risk populations such as Alzheimer’s patients will be a focus.
The state will include fall-risk assessments in home- and community-based Medicaid-waiver programs because they serve so many seniors.
“Falls are everybody’s issue — not just seniors,” said Jane Acri, community-education program manager for the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging.
In a classroom at the Gerlach Center on the Northwest Side last week, nine senior citizens in the OhioHealth class, including Tenney, ran through a series of lower-body exercises with the same precision as a group of college ROTC cadets.
“Scooch to the edge of your chairs, feet under your knees, lean forward and stand up, nice and tall. That’s it,” said Michelle Murray, a physical therapist and rehab manager for Ohio-Health.
“This feels just like church with all the up and down,” said a joking Ernst “Matt” Mattenklott, 80, of the Northwest Side.
“Like you go,” said his partner, Joy Copeland, to laughter from the other participants.
Tenney gingerly did each exercise, making sure to do exactly as instructed.
After three back surgeries, two new knees and a hip replacement, the last thing Tenney wants to do is reinjure himself. He also has to be careful because he has nerve damage that often causes his feet to become weak and go numb.
“I think of this as my insurance policy,” he said.
To learn more about fall prevention in Ohio, go to www.steadyu.ohio.gov . To find out about programs in your area, go to www.aging.ohio.gov/ steadyu/resources/matterofbal ance.aspx#MOBtable.
Officials who work with the elderly say that falls can be devastating. Among the tips to prevent such injuries:
• Find a good exercise program. Look to build balance, strength and flexibility. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging for referrals. The number for central Ohio is 614-645-7250.
• Ask for a fall risk assessment by your doctor. Be sure to share your history of recent falls.
• Regularly review your medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — with your doctor or pharmacist. Make sure that side effects aren’t increasing your risk of falling. Only take medications as prescribed.
• Get your vision and hearing checked annually and update your eyeglasses. Your eyes and ears are keys to keeping you on your feet.
• Check your home because that’s where about half of all falls occur. Remove tripping hazards, increase lighting, make stairs safe and install grab bars in key areas.
• Enlist the help of loved ones in taking simple steps to stay safe. Falls are not just a senior issue.
Source: National Council on Aging waiver programs because they serve so many seniors.