July 18, 2019
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How to keep failing eyesight from causing falls in older Mainers

BDN file | BDN
BDN file | BDN
Rita Bridge (right) concentrates while participating in a public tai chi demonstration and class on the Bangor Waterfront last summer. The event was sponsored by the Bangor-based Eastern Area Agency on Aging, which uses an evidence-based tai chi program to help prevent falls by improving seniors’ strength, balance and coordination.

Falling is a major cause of permanent disability and loss of independence among older adults, according to the National Council on Aging. It is estimated that one in three Americans 65 and older fall each year, many suffering serious injury, hospitalization or even death.

So it’s not surprising that the fear of falling prevents many older Americans from socializing, exercising and participating actively in their lives. Ironically, limiting activity results in rapid loss of muscle strength, loss of coordination and loss of confidence, all of which actually increase the risk of falling.

That’s why many social service agencies, including the Bangor-based Eastern Area Agency on Aging, actively promote evidence-based “falls prevention” programming aimed at building strength and balance in older adults, making their home environments safer and decreasing both the fear and the risk of falling.

“We have a huge commitment to falls prevention,” said Lisa Dunning, health programs manager for the Bangor-based agency.

In addition to offering exercise classes, including tai chi, yoga and strength training for seniors 50 and over, EAAA also conducts regular risk assessments to help seniors and their families determine strategies for improving home safety and reducing the risk of falling.

The next falls risk assessment will take place at 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, at the agency’s Airport Mall site.

The assessment will be preceded at 1 p.m. by a talk titled “Low Vision and Everyday Life” by Carolyn Dorfman, a professor of occupational therapy at Husson University. Dorfman recently completed a graduate certificate in helping individuals adapt to living with “low vision” and is looking to put her new skills to work in the community.

Low vision is defined as a noncorrectable loss of vision that makes everyday activities difficult or impossible.

There are many reasons eyesight fails with age, Dorfman said. The most common is a general loss of visual acuity, which often can be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses or surgery. But other conditions cannot be corrected, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and changes associated with diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Head injuries and strokes can also affect vision, robbing individuals of the essential ability to see and interact with the world around us.

“People with low vision can become very isolated and feel very helpless,” Dorfman said. Not only do they lose the ability to read, drive and navigate safely in their bathrooms and kitchens — key to living independently at home — but activities such as watching television, dialing a phone number, using a computer and enjoying favorite pastimes like gardening, knitting or woodworking also become challenging, if not impossible.

And, she said, safety becomes a major concern — particularly the potential for falls — as worsening eyesight affects depth perception, balance, peripheral vision and the ability to see contrast and color.

“But we can go into people’s homes and help,” Dorfman said. Her free talk will explain how low vision affects everyday life, what different diagnoses mean, when medical interventions are helpful and what tools are available to help people adapt to this big change in their lives.

Improving lighting, removing scatter rugs and repainting rooms, stairways and other surfaces for high contrast can help people with limited vision navigate their homes, she said, while simple tricks like using bright-colored “puffy markers” to create raised labels on stovetop controls can improve safety in other ways.

In addition to being helpful for individuals of any age who are personally affected by low vision, Dorfman said, the talk will help family members and caregivers understand the physical and emotional changes that come with a loss in vision.

The EAAA’s Dunning said addressing low vision is one way the agency can help seniors avoid falls and other injuries and remain active as they age. For people with low vision, she said, “The world gets terribly smaller. Our goal is to keep them safe in their homes, because that’s where they want to be.”

Dorfman’s talk will begin at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 19, at EAAA’s Airport Mall annex, followed by a falls risk assessment at 2 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.

 



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