There is some dynamic news for anyone who has fallen, or is wary of doing so. Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard (HAMV), which is a planning and advocacy organization, initiated a task force in 2013 to ensure that the Vineyard is an aging-friendly Island, with the infrastructure and services in place for its rapidly growing older adult population.
With one in three Island residents over the age of 65, according to HAMV materials, one of its critical undertakings has been the Falls Prevention Coalition, which includes more than 15 Island organizations. Its mission is to raise awareness of the risk of falling as one ages, to educate and provide resources to prevent them, and to empower older adults to take action to reduce their fall risk and — when they do fall — how to recover more quickly.
According to executive director Cindy Trish, something that is important to grasp is that falls are a natural part of our lives. The statistics are sobering. Among the 2,000 respondents to its 2020 survey, one out of five older adult Islanders reported falling in the past year — and increasing to 40 percent for those 85 and older. Trish says, “Twenty percent of falls result in a serious injury, and [falls are the] No. 1 cause of accidental deaths for older adults. It is a really big deal. We are hoping to raise awareness to help mitigate the consequences of a fall, and reducing them.”
Most critical is empowering us to do something to feel a bit more in control. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources available.
Out of the Coalition came the Home Safety Modification Program, which identifies and then makes the safety modifications possible so older adults can stay in their home. Trish explains, “We were able to get funding from the hospital and the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank Charitable Foundation to create a pilot program and test it out,” Trish explains. “It’s a referral program through the Councils on Aging or through HAMV. We’ve done 25 homes, and are hoping to get to 50. And we’re looking for a partner to take it on once we’re out of the pilot phase.”
Low-cost modifications include simple grab bars, inside and outside stairwell handrails, and lighting, traction or nonskid strips, taping rugs down, and smoothing floor surfaces. With a sliding-fee scale, about 90 percent of participants have been fully covered so far.
“When you do fall, often you develop a fear of falling, which diminishes the way you live your life,” Trish says. “We want to get out of that cycle when we can. Key to this are awareness, education, and empowerment.”
Trish emphasizes that another important action is to get your vision and prescriptions checked regularly. And to keep moving, even simple everyday activities like washing dishes or gardening can help improve your balance and strengthen your muscles. There are many exercise programs on the Island, such as those at the YMCA, for folks who want to exercise anywhere from in a chair to all levels of capability and confidence. The YMCA has a whole array of classes, equipment, and individual assistance directly targeted for “healthy agers,” listed on their website at ymcamv.org/healthy-agers-1. There are also physical wellness offerings at local Councils on Aging. You can discover additional resources, workshops, and programs through the HAMV website at hamv.org/falls-prevention.
An immediate key prevention step is to have your doctor or pharmacist check your medications and supplements regularly, because their side effects can be feeling dizzy or sleepy, thus increasing your risk of falling. Likewise, Trish reports, this is especially true if you take more than five medications a day.
It’s vital to remember there is an upside about being aware of where the risks are for you, and what you can do about them. What became very clear from the data from the survey, Trish shares, was an appreciation for living on the Vineyard, a sense that it is a great place to age, and a true appreciation for the natural beauty of the Island.
“Our older adults actually contribute the equivalent of $28 million a year of volunteer hours. And many of them want to be very socially engaged in our community physically, emotionally, and mentally,” Trish says. “Falling gets in the way of doing things.” Taking action on how to reduce your fall risk simply increases your opportunity to do the things you want to do and to stay independent, she explained.
“We want to support people’s desire to stay in their home, and not begin that slippery slope of falling, then falling again, and eliminating the most obvious dangers and creating a better life,” she says. “Falling is a part of our lives. But there are things we can do to mitigate the risk and increase the likelihood of living the lives we want to live for as long as we can. And, after all, as we move into fall … we don’t want to be falling.”