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Sunday seniors: Lack of balance-building activities in pandemic spurs worries about falling

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2020 9:52:08 PM
Modified: 9/19/2020 9:52:06 PM

In usual times, health care providers would be worried about older adults and falling. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, with balance-aiding activities like bone builders and tai chi classes on hold, those concerns are magnified.

“Even if it was just a few weeks, we were concerned there would be a decline in overall function,” said David Edson, a physical therapist with Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire, during a Zoom interview. “Then as it dragged on, it really started to become a concern.”

But there are other ways for older people to reduce the risk of falling and improve their balance without leaving their homes. This week is also Falls Prevention Awareness Week, which is sponsored by the National Council on Aging to remind older adults and their loved ones of the dangers of falling and what to do about it.

“Even just asking the question, ‘(Are you) afraid to fall?’ because we know that that fear can lead to increased fall risk,” said Julie Savo, a physical therapist with the VNH, during a Zoom interview. “I think people are less likely to move as much. People want to stay closer to the ground, so you’ll often see people’s posture change. As we develop some of those habits, it certainly changes how our muscles are being used. It can contribute to weakness. Something as simple as shuffling your feet can contribute to weakness.”

Older adults who are typically more active might be staying home more due to the pandemic, where isolation can become a concern.

“I think there’s a lot of factors around COVID that can make people at a higher risk for falls,” Savo said. “We know how depression can lead to decrease in mobility.”

One place to start is by looking around the home to move objects that could cause someone to trip and fall. Make sure there is adequate lighting.

“Often the ones we see the most in the home are clutter, not clear pathways. People don’t have easy access to get in and out of rooms and in hallways,” Edson said. “Falls are such a common thing that we see in home health in the older population.”

It might not be possible to attend a class at a senior center right now, but remaining active is crucial to preventing falls.

“General activity level is important to the balance systems and other things that feed into it are ‘you don’t use it, you lose it’ systems,” Edson said. “Periods of inactivity can be problematic.”

As the colder weather sets in and spending time outside might becomes less appealing, older adults can focus on programs they can do indoors, such as online classes. Those without internet access can walk around their homes or exercise by sitting and standing up from a chair.

“Something like a cane can also be very helpful as well,” Savo said.

One benefit of classes like tai chi and bone builders is the socialization aspect. Participants are able to support and encourage each other.

“There is a huge concern about isolation and depression and people not being able to tap into the communities that they’re used to being around,” Edson said. “In the spirit of taking care of our community, if you know of an older person who you used to see out walking and haven’t ... check in on them see if they want to go for a walk. We’re all wearing masks to protect each other, and this might be an extension of that.”

Editor’s note: For more information, visit vnhcare.org/patients-caregivers/fall-prevention.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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