How A Northland Coalition Is Helping Seniors Stay Balanced

Nov 19, 2015

Here’s a sobering stat: one-third of seniors 65 and older fall every year.

Everyone is susceptible to falls. People of all ages trip, stumble and bump into things. People who are young and fit don’t have much trouble bouncing back. But if for woman older than 80 in otherwise good health, a broken hip triples the risk of dying in the next year.

Dwight Sampson would know. His late wife fell three times in two years.

He’s since done everything he can to make sure his Northland home is fall-proof. He’s gotten rid of the throw rugs, installed grab bars in the bathroom and put in a chair lift to get upstairs.

“None of this that I put in here is real expensive,” Sampson says. “The only thing of it is, most people don’t do it until somebody falls.”

Sampson, 89, lives alone but needs a cane to get around. He has a walker, too, though he uses it rarely, only before bed.

“There is a stigma feeling, and you’ve got to overcome that,” he says of his cane. “One of the things I did not want to do was to isolate myself into this house and not do anything. I wanted to get out and do stuff like I’ve been doing for the last 80 years.”

That’s one of the reasons Sampson enrolled in a Matter of Balance class offered through the Northland Shepherd’s Center.

“I discovered that we were teaching people to change their attitude and discover ways you could live with a fear of falling and make corrections and continue on with your life,” Sampson says.

Teaching balance

For years a broad coalition of Northland health care providers and community partners has been meeting to share information on healthy aging. The class Sampson took is part of the Senior Falls Prevention Coalition of Clay and Platte Counties. He found the class so helpful he signed up as a teacher.

Dwight Sampson (left) and Kevin Phillips co-teach a Matter of Balance class, which focuses on fall prevention strategies.
Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR

After leading a recent class in a round of exercises designed to improve balance, Sampson asks the group how they feel about asking for help.

“Do you tell your doctor if you fall?” Sampson wants to know.

One man says he does. Another isn’t so sure that’s a good idea -- don’t doctors have to report it if you fall three times in a year?

“You’ve got to remember your doctor is your partner, right?” says co-teacher Kevin Phillips, 60. “If you tell him you’re falling, there might be a medical reason for that you can figure out.”

Where collecting data falls short

Tracking falls is Ximena Somoza’s job. She works at the Clay County Public Health Center, where she compiles emergency room data from hospitals in the Northland.

Falls cause a lot of emergency room visits, but sometimes patients are reluctant to tell their doctor what happened. So her staff has to be clever when they’re running queries.

“Slip, trip, stumble, hit, broke, fall, fell,” says Somoza. “Sometimes it’s just the tense that will change the query.”

She says it would be much easier if everyone who fell just used the word “fall.”

Somoza, 53, is younger than the seniors she’s researching. But she knows a thing or two about falling. Three years ago, she slipped on a wet floor and broke her hip. Her recovery was long and painful: two weeks in the hospital, three months of bed rest, three months of physical therapy.

“Other patients there were asking me, ‘Why are you happy? What are you happy about?’ I had no other choice. I could not even get close to the window and jump off, so I need to be happy,” says Somoza.

Somoza says for older adults who can’t bounce back the way she did, it’s easy to get depressed. That’s why she’s now working with the Senior Falls Prevention Coalition.

“I love the word prevention,” she says.

The Clay County Public Health Center has been tracking emergency room admittance for falls for five years. But even though Somoza can run the numbers, she says it’s too soon to say what they mean. That’s one of the things the coalition is trying to figure out.

How to get back up

Sampson’s efforts to educate himself about falls have paid off: he hasn’t fallen, he says proudly. But in case he does, he has a contingency plan. He wears one of those panic devices advertised on TV.

“That’s what this is,” he says, pulling out a lanyard. “Just this little thing here will handle the area 50 feet around my house.”

Sampson spends less than $200 a year for his Lifeline button thanks to a discount available through Clay County Senior Services.

Compare that to the cost of falling: Medicare paid upward of $14,000 per fall in 2013.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.