Master of balance

Falls are an inevitable part of aging. But they don’t have to be.


Feeling a little tipsy, but you’ve only been drinking herbal tea? Choosing an indoor snooze over an outdoor hike because you’re afraid you could trip? Worried about stairs, so you stay home? A Matter of Balance may be a perfect next step, one that will keep you standing tall, stepping confidently and safely ahead.

Being off balance is no laughing matter. Statistics show falls are a leading cause of injury for people age 65 and older, and many younger adults suffer fall-related injuries too.

“Falls are not an inevitable part of aging, and there are proven ways to prevent them,” said Kathleen Samways, DPT PT, who manages the Matter of Balance program.

Fortunately for Islanders who want to improve confidence about balance and be proactive in maintaining it, help is available. The free eight-week Matter of Balance course is offered several times each year under the auspices of Island Health Care Community Health Center, where Samways is director of quality improvement and enabling services.

This nationally recognized evidence-based program aims to empower older adults to stay active, independent, and safe in their homes and communities. Courses originated at Boston University and were developed further by a group of health agencies in Maine, and are available in 41 states across the country, Washington, D.C., and British Columbia.

Schedules and locations for Vineyard classes vary, to accommodate all who are interested. Each two-hour class includes teaching, practical information, exercises to build confidence about moving and enhance strength and balance, and tips, ideas, and discussion. Two trained instructors lead each class, and are available for individual attention with exercises or questions.


Maintaining balance, keeping active

Balance problems and fears about falls are not limited to older seniors; Illness, injury, or recovering from surgery are also factors. Medications can impair stability when standing or walking. Allergies, the sniffles, or ear issues can lead to lightheadedness.

Samways began offering classes here in 2015. Along with arranging schedules and handling registration, publicity, and outreach, Samways, a trained physical therapist, is frequently co-instructor for the classes.

Working with Samways are volunteer leaders, or coaches. Samways, a master trainer for instructors, is seeking more volunteers to lead the classes.

“If falls prevention isn’t something that you’re thinking about now, I promise there is someone in your family who is worried about it,” Samways wrote in a press release. “This kind of education can change a community.”

A Matter of Balance is not only for older seniors or those with physical challenges, Samways emphasized. She said the class is for anyone concerned about falls, anyone interested in improving balance, flexibility, and strength, anyone who has fallen or has restricted activities because of falling concerns. Students are often healthy adults seeking tools to maintain fitness.

She stressed that the course is not about learning to balance but about building confidence, learning better and safer ways of moving, and combating negative attitudes and fears of falling that can cause people to cut back on activities.

Samways is a dedicated cheerleader for staying fit and active through the years, and believes this program helps people achieve that.

“As we age, there is a mistaken belief that we can, or need to, rest, when physically slowing down is so dangerous for our health,” Samways said. “So retire, kick back, but don’t stop moving. ‘Sitting is the new smoking.’”

Samways said students gain “information, awareness, confidence, new and safer approaches to doing the same things they have always loved to do, but thought through in a new way so that they can keep doing them.”

“Please protect yourself by keeping on moving!” Samways urged. “If you need help, ask for it. If you need information, seek it out.”

For Islanders wanting to enhance balance and avoid falls, Samways recommended a home safety consult by public health nurse Lila Fischer, R.N. (508-939-9358). She said another resource is balance evaluation and treatment available at the hospital’s rehab and wellness program with a physician’s referral.


Classes bring many benefits

A summer session met Tuesday mornings at the West Tisbury library. About 15 men and women gathered in the community room to hear up-to-date information on subjects from general fall prevention and recovery techniques to suggestions for useful safety equipment and accessories for home and walking.

The classes had a comfortable atmosphere, as students asked questions and shared personal experiences with others, and instructors offered advice about ways to adjust activities for safety and stability. During one class, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital physical therapist Marcela Pouliot offered extensive information and advice.

Age and fitness level varied. Some students were recovering from surgery or a fall; some living with Parkinson’s and wanting to maintain mobility; others in good physical shape were seeking tools to stay fit and active.

Each session includes informative teaching and movement instruction, along with opportunity for questions. Participants often say group sharing and discussion is especially valuable for learning useful tips about dealing with balance or movement challenges and pitfalls, and managing everyday activities safely.

Stevie Kernick was lay instructor for the summer classes. One of several instructors trained in 2016, Kernick has led numerous classes, and is enthusiastic about the program.

Trim and petite, Kernick was an inspiring presence, energetic and encouraging. After demonstrating a pair of hiking poles and explaining their usefulness for both stability and upper body exercise, she launched into the exercise routine.

The movements are accessible to all, and can be modified to accommodate physical limitations. Many are done while seated, followed by a set of standing postures. The moves are not extreme or taxing, but are challenging enough that students must pay attention and maintain proper form. Done regularly, the routine may well improve strength and flexibility. Each exercise has a focus, from shoulders to legs, arms, ankles, and even fingers.

Each exercise is worked through carefully and precisely; students are encouraged to be mindful of each separate movement, and change positions gradually to avoid accidents. There are handouts and homework, and students are encouraged to exercise between classes.

“It’s been wonderful. I wasn’t aware of all the movements you could do to improve,” said Dominick Vecchiarella, a New Jersey visitor, attending with his wife Lucille. “They cover the whole body, which is important. It’s really helped me. I’m glad I came.”

Vecchiarella had suffered a fall recently, and was able to employ techniques he learned in the class to lessen the severity of his injury.

Other students completing evaluation sheets had rave reviews for the program, the instructors, and benefits they received.

“No matter where you’re at in physical health, you can learn more things,” wrote one.

“How to plan and strategize for my activities … Think positively about fall risks … Be aware of surroundings … Assess any risk that may cause a fall and remove …” were among the valuable takeaways.

“Plan ahead, pay attention, be more confident,” was how one participant summed up the valuable lesson learned.


For more information, to participate in the eight-week Matter of Balance series, or to train to become a volunteer instructor, call 508-627-5797, ext. 114, and leave a message for Kathleen Samways.