In partnership with the Pitt County Council on Aging, North Carolina Schweitzer Fellows Elizabeth Rossitch and Haily Vora are conducting A Matter of Balance classes aimed at helping local seniors reduce their fear of falling and increase their activity levels.
Rossitch and Vora both came to their project having seen firsthand the devastating effect that falls―or fears of falling―have on older adults. As an Emergency Medical Technician for more than three years, Rossitch has responded to a frustratingly high number of calls to assist seniors who had taken bad falls. Vora saw her increasingly weak grandmother become so fearful of falling that she stopped performing routine daily tasks and became increasingly immobile.
“Now, she is bedridden and depends on the help of others to do daily tasks,” says Vora. “I want to help prevent that in my community and show older adults that it is possible to stay strong and independent as you age.”
Rossitch’s appreciation for how difficult daily life can be for seniors only deepened when, as an undergraduate at University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, she participated in a simulation lab that replicated feelings of neuropathy, auditory hallucinations, and poor vision.
“With these handicaps, I had to perform everyday tasks, which didn’t seem so simple anymore,” says Rossitch. “Given how hard this was, I began to understand why EMTs end up having to respond to so many older adults who have fallen.”
A Matter of Balance is an eight-week program in which participants learn to view falls and the fear of falling as controllable; set realistic goals to increase activity, change their environment to reduce fall risk factors, and exercise to increase strength and balance.
“We hope to observe a decreased fear of falling, an increased confidence in handling falls, increased activity levels and mobility control; and enhanced social activity,” says Rossitch.
Often, only small adjustments are necessary in order to reduce the risk of in-home falls, as one participant learned early in Rossitch’s and Vora’s course. Now living in her daughter’s home, she gave up cooking because she feared slipping on the throw rugs on the kitchen floor. She did not want to impose on her daughter by asking that she remove the rugs. Together, the class brainstormed solutions.
“We found that the rugs have to be washed every so often, and the participant was the one that did the laundry,” says Vora. “We made a plan that when the rugs are being washed, she could use the kitchen without fear. A few weeks later, she came back to the class excited to share that she had cooked one of her favorite dishes, which she hadn’t made in a long time, and was able to get great joy out of cooking for her family again.”
Rossitch and Vora, both graduate students at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, say they have done as much learning as they have teaching.
“I have the strongest relationships with the Farmville Senior Center members because we completed our first Matter of Balance class with them at the end of June,” says Rossitch. “At the start of the class it took the participants time to open and share their stories with us. By the end they were sharing recipes with us that we would cook before the next class and report back on how good they were. My favorite was the spaghetti squash au gratin.”
“It has been both exciting and challenging to understand the interests and values of the older adult population,” says Vora. “I learned that working with older adults takes patience and flexibility because they move at their own pace. The daily activities that are important to them are unique to their age group, and those are the activities we must focus on when we create goals and plans in our class.”
Rossitch and Vora are looking to continue their project beyond their Fellowships, having recruited two students from ECU’s Pre-Occupational Therapy Student Association to continue their work. “They’ll be getting trained to be A Matter of Balance coaches in August and will be aiding us in providing the courses,” says Rossitch. “Our hope is that the Pre-OT club will adopt this as a formal service initiative and other members can see first-hand the impact they can have on the community.”