NEW LENOX – When Daniel Martin, public safety division chief at the New Lenox Police Department, was appalled when he saw the statistics on how many senior residents in town were injured in falls.
In New Lenox and nationwide, Martin said, 60 to 65 percent of falls are in the senior population.
“We didn’t want to see that,” Martin said. “Sometimes when these seniors fall, they don’t recover.”
Injuries ranged from minor bruises, to broken fingers or wrists from breaking a fall, to head injuries and major bone breaks. Those can snowball problems in seniors, leading to home health care, nursing homes, a fear of going out and other situations, Martin said.
The news eventually led a 20-member coalition – The New Lenox Safe Communities America Coalition – to begin a set of classes to help seniors learn how to lessen their chances of falling. The coalition’s seventh eight-week Matter of Balance class begins in July.
“I think it’s a wonderful program,” Martin said. “The evaluations are coming back very positive, and we are getting especially good feedback on the exercises. ... [The program] provides an opportunity for them to come out and learn something that may some day save their lives.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average rate of falls with injury is 43 per 1,000. In those ages 75 and older, however, that rate is 115. Each year, one in three adults age 65 and older falls. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries.
The New Lenox fall-prevention classes consist of learning how to prevent falls from the program’s lay-leaders, hearing seminars from experts, watching relevant films, doing exercises and discussing changes the students can make in their lives. Only 12 seniors are in each class.
“The atmosphere is very intimate, very interactive, open communication,” Martin said. “They can feel free to share confidential information about their fears and other things they are going through. They feel, ‘I’m not the only one this happened to.’ ”
The premise of the classes is to help seniors recognize they might not be able to live their lives exactly the way they used to.
“They’ve been used to living their lives and doing things how they’ve always done them, then they fall,” Martin said. “Their confidence is shaken, their patterns begin to change, they might not take any more walks or go to movies. This can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which is counterproductive to them. ... It affects their strength and stamina.”
The classes addresses what kinds of shoes to wear, making sure regular appointments with the optometrist are made and analyzing home tripping hazards. Small class sizes mean seniors can individualize concerns. One senior was regularly climbing up on her kitchen table to change light bulbs, Martin said. But there’s a simple solution.
“You have to be assertive by asking for help,” said one of the class’s leaders, Laura Regis. “That’s a big part about getting out, too, asking a friend to go to the mall or somewhere with you.”
Regis is a semi-retired nurse with a dialysis consulting business and an adjunct instructor at Lewis University in Romeoville. She understands the physiological toll aging takes on the body and, at 67, is beginning to have a personal understanding of issues affecting seniors.
She became one of the lay-leaders of the falls prevention program after two of her friends and fellow Ladies Auxiliary members of the New Lenox VFW Post 9545 – Linda Paschell and Sherri Scherdin – persuaded her to do so.
“I enjoy working with seniors,” Regis said, “and I have an interest in doing something good for the community.”
Regis said 90 percent of the seniors in her classes have fallen. That can lead to a fear of falling again, she said, then even becoming homebound. The cold and icy winter exacerbated those feelings in the older population and many still remaining in their homes.
A fear of falling, she said, may have a basis in real experience, but is often overblown. The classes are designed to teach the seniors how to deal with the anxiety and how to make their bodies less prone to falls and their environment safer.
“Exercises are important for maintaining strength and balance,” she said. “We custom them to anyone’s abilities.”
The class exercises include rotating the feet. Regis said ankles are one of most important of the balance muscles, marching in place to develop the thighs, and shoulder and hand exercises to help regain stance so they can catch themselves before a fall goes all the way to the ground.
“You can have grab bars in the shower,” she said, “but what if you start to fall and grab them and can’t hold your weight?”
The leaders also give the seniors a scavenger hunt checklist to go through their homes and discover trip hazards.
“Most people do not need rugs in their homes,” she said, “especially if they walk with a cane or a walker.”
New Lenox is one of only three Illinois communities officially designated as a “Safe Community America,” which is a National Safety Council-designated community that:
• Uses community data to prioritize safety and health areas in greatest need of attention.
• Works together in a coordinated and collaborative way.
• Promotes safety and health to prevent injury of its residents.
• Is committed to the process of continuous improvement.
• Saves lives and prevents injuries.
To prevent falls, older adults can:
• Exercise regularly, focusing on increasing leg strength and improving balance, with more challenging programs over time.
• Ask their doctor or pharmacist to review their medicines to identify those that may cause side effects or interactions such as dizziness or drowsiness.
• Have their eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year and update their eyeglasses to maximize their vision.
• Reduce tripping hazards inside the home.
• Add grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet.
• Add railings on both sides of stairways.
• Improve lighting in the home.
If you go
What: New Lenox “Matter of Balance” classes
When: 1 to 3 p.m., Mondays, July 7 to Aug. 25
Where: New Lenox Public Library, 120 Veterans Parkway
Etc.: An 8-week series of classes that addresses older residents’ concerns of falling.
Cost: Free to all New Lenox Township residents 65 or older.
Register: 815-462-6128 or firstname.lastname@example.org