Idaho’s seniors are falling like pushed dominoes, and too many aren’t standing up again.
They’re falling at nearly twice the national rate, according to the state Department of Health and Welfare. About one-third of the state’s over-65 age group fall at least once a year.
The picture doesn’t improve in North Idaho. Emergency crews in at least one fire district responded to more calls that resulted from falls than any other emergency.
“We responded to 175 cardiac calls in 2004 and 176 falls, and those are usually 65 and older,” said Jim Lyon, public education specialist for Kootenai County Fire and Rescue. His district covers about a third of Kootenai County.
Health and fitness specialists blame the state’s high fall rate on inactivity, poor eating habits and the medical conditions and medications that multiply as people age.
“Falls are preventable,” said Joanna Adams, health promotion supervisor for the Panhandle Health District. “They’re the leading cause of injury death in people over 65 and a major cause of hip fractures. Many people never regain their physical abilities after a hip fracture.”
The statistics spurred Health and Welfare and the state’s public health districts into action. Injury prevention experts began encouraging seniors to remove hazards in their homes. They suggested seniors tack down loose carpets, remove electrical cords from areas where they might trip on them, and keep walkways and stairs free of debris.
Health and Welfare also contracted with Terry-Ann Spitzer Gibson, a physical education specialist and researcher at Boise State University, and Jan Mittleider, a physical education specialist at the College of Southern Idaho, to develop an exercise curriculum that could reduce the risk of falling.
The two specialists created the Fit and Fall Proof curriculum, a program designed to improve seniors’ strength, balance, mobility and nerve responses. It’s a six-week program with two hour-long sessions each week that reminds seniors how to do several tasks at one time – for example, walking and talking – while it teaches basic exercises.
“We’re not taxing the heart. There’s some walking, some resistance training for strength, flexibility for balancing,” Gibson said. “Everybody does what they’re capable of doing, not more than they can do.”
In North Idaho, the Panhandle Health District will offer Fit and Fall Proof classes free starting in mid-July after class sites are finalized.
Participants will sit in chairs and raise their legs off the floor, roll their ankles, bend their heads to stretch their necks, march standing or in chairs, circle their arms and more. Gibson and Mittleider designed exercises people can do in wheelchairs or holding onto a chair, if they need to. They also decided to train seniors to teach the classes and allow them flexibility to be creative with the exercises.
“Sometimes older adults have difficulty relating to young people,” Gibson said.
Adams trained in the curriculum a year ago and returned to Coeur d’Alene to round up volunteer trainers. Claudia Burtelow, who recruits people for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, had no problem finding volunteers.
“When I mentioned this, there was a lot of enthusiasm,” Burtelow said. “I hope people do it. I fell up the stairs recently. I was carrying too much. As you get older you don’t want to acknowledge you have to make changes for age.”
North Idaho has 20 trainers ready to go. They’ll teach in pairs or trios and offer seven classes in Kootenai and Bonner counties.
Panhandle Health will train more volunteers as teachers in September, then start Fit and Fall Proof classes in Kellogg and Bonners Ferry, Adams said.
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