Helping the Elderly Prevent Falls
By Triveni Sheshadri
The statistics are sobering. Every year one in three adults ages 65 and older experiences a fall. As a result many suffer fractures, injuries and, in some cases, even death. Falls are a leading cause of hospitalizations among the elderly.
Hyun Gu Kang, assistant professor of kinesiology at Cal State San Marcos, is intrigued by why falls occur and what can be done to prevent them.
“In kinesiology, we learn about how balance, stability and postural control systems work,” Kang said. “I want to know what is happening when they don’t work. Two of my great grandparents lived up to 100. Both had falls and passed away within a week of the incidents. They were healthy and it was the fall that took them.”
In February Kang launched a nine-week fall prevention program at the San Marcos Senior Center. Nine elderly men and women enrolled in the twice-weekly class taught by certified FallProof™ instructor Mary Jo Preti. The class allows the seniors to learn valuable fall prevention strategies while giving CSUSM’s kinesiology, nursing and human development students the opportunity to collaborate and practice their classroom learning in a real world setting.
Kang believes that falls are not an inevitable part of aging.
“Falls are preventable,” he said. “The prevention is not always expensive or complicated. I wanted our students to have the knowledge and skills to do something about it. They have a responsibility to the community.”
The class is based on FallProofTM, a prevention program developed by Debra Rose, professor of kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton. Rose’s program, used in retirement communities and senior centers all over the country, includes screening and assessment, and exercises to improve balance, gait, flexibility, posture, strength and endurance. Instructors use devices such as stability balls, cones and foam pads in the exercise routines.
“We improve balance by taking away the things we use to help ourselves,” Kang said. “We ask the seniors to place their feet on squishy foam pads so that they cannot use their feet to balance. Sometimes we ask them to close their eyes so that they cannot use their vision. We take away the use of the arms, so that they find other ways to balance.”
On a recent afternoon, about a dozen CSUSM students stood alert, watchful and ready to help as the seniors began their exercises. Among them was Chris Dobson, a kinesiology major, who walked with Mary Wood as she made her way around numerous orange cones placed on the floor.
“It’s been a great experience,” Chris said. “I’m learning how to interact and engage with seniors, and practice safety protocols. I am thinking of becoming a certified fall prevention instructor.”
For seniors like Wood, the class is an opportunity to learn exercises that can keep her safe.
“I move too fast and I tend to fall,” Wood said. “I’m also trying to improve my balance and the strength in my legs. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
As they work together the CSUSM students and the seniors in the class have developed an easy camaraderie. While the seniors are appreciative of the attentive help in the class, the students are learning from the intergenerational experience.
Audrey Oliver took slow and steady steps as she walked backwards while kinesiology major Breanna Merson kept a close watch on her.
Oliver beamed at the student.
“She reminds me of my granddaughter,” she said.
Merson said she enjoyed working with the seniors.
“It’s great to work with Audrey and all the wonderful people here,” she said. “I have grown attached to all of them.”
Nursing student Lea Lewis has seen many instances of seniors who end up in hospitals after falls.
“It’s a great idea to teach fall prevention to seniors because it’s such a big issue in health care and the aging population is growing so much,” Lewis said. “Falls can lead to so many complications and hospitalizations.”
Class instructor Mary Jo Preti said it was a great benefit to have the CSUSM students assist her in the class.
“They are very good,” Preti said. “I can do so much more in the class with their help. They have great suggestions. There’s a lot of give and take both ways.”
As the class wrapped up, Preti stood in the center of the room and looked around.
“That was very nicely done interns,” she said to the CSUSM students. “Let’s have a round of applause all around.”