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Seven men and women sat at tables lined up in a UPMC McKeesport classroom, already a few sessions into a workshop to improve their strength and balance as they get older.
“I’m determined to get my balance back,” said Joann Gajdzik, 78, of McKeesport. “I talked my daughter into taking me.”
Ms. Gajdzik broke some bones in a fall, went through knee surgery and had multiple bouts of physical therapy — only to fall again.
“We are trying to prevent that,” said her daughter, Melanie Elder, 46, who was there beside her in the class. She lives with her mom, helping her with meals and medications. Both plan to learn — and practice at home — the exercises in the A Matter of Balance program led by instructors from the Aging Institute at UPMC McKeesport.
Ms. Elder said she’s getting something from the class, too: “My balance isn’t the greatest.”
Proven successful in preventing fall-related injuries among older adults, the eight-session A Matter of Balance class is now being offered by the Allegheny County Health Department in various settings. It’s designed to help people who are living independently to safely stay in their own homes. Training is available for coaches who want to bring the program to their organization. Curriculum and support is provided.
The program teaches practical ways to prevent or manage falls. Participants learn how to make safety changes in their homes; to do exercises to increase strength and balance and to set realistic goals to become more active.
The Aging Institute coaches, nurse Melissa Jones and social worker Christine Adams, brought it to the McKeesport-White Oak community.
“The Matter of Balance curriculum is built upon the fear of walking. Just being fearful puts you at risk for falling,” Ms. Jones said before the recent session. The first two classes raise an awareness of the fear, which causes people to become less active. The third session introduces exercises to help with balance, coordination, endurance and strength.
With two instructors, one is able to go around the room, helping participants with body positioning and reminders to keep breathing through the exercises.
Lorraine Starsky, a longtime public health nurse for the county, said there are some unique aspects in this particular program, which reports benefits that last after participants complete at least five of the eight classes.
“I’m enthusiastic about this one,” she said. “It’s a model that’s user-friendly, not burdened with a lot of paperwork.” It’s been studied for about 20 years at sites around the country, she said, and the classes can be led by coaches who are not medical or exercise professionals.
The program is designed for small groups of eight to 14 people, to be offered in convenient community locations for free, or at a low cost. Any group can sponsor the program; coach training and materials are paid for by a grant from the state Health Department.
The county Health Department is offering the program in community settings, such as libraries, senior centers, churches and other community organizations. The first session was at Persad Center, serving the city’s LGBTQ community, which plans future classes as well. Additional classes are expected at the UPMC Aging Institute and coach training will be offered later this fall, Ms. Starsky said. For now, she and a colleague are the master trainers.
“We are providing training to the coaches, then we are there to give guidance and support,” she said. “We’re willing to go anywhere, to go where people are interested in becoming coaches.” Once the coaches are trained, they can offer the class in any setting, she added.
Participants can bring home their program handbook and are encouraged to continue the activity.
“They are modest, low-risk exercises they can do in their own home,” Ms. Starsky said. “They can do it in front of the TV set.”
A nurse for 24 years, Ms. Starsky said there’s a great need to prevent falls.
“I really see this as a huge problem,” she said. “When I worked in a hospital setting, that was my population — people who had falls. People with hip replacements due to falls. Some of the folks weren’t able to regain enough functioning to go back home.”
A Matter of Balance is open to people who have had a fall and to those who haven’t, to people using a cane or walker and those walking on their own.
“It’s important to keep moving,” Ms. Adams said. “My clients without social interactions don’t move as much. Anyone can do these exercises, even if they’re [using a wheelchair].” The program takes people through more than two dozen exercises, working through all the parts of the body — from the neck and shoulders to the arms and wrists and down to the legs and ankles.
Ms. Starsky said the program isn’t just exercise: “We talk about some of the more unconscious thinking about falls; a lot of fear about falls that people don’t talk about… It gives people a sense of empowerment...to look at their risk realistically, to troubleshoot; it gives them those skills.”
For example, Ms. Jones said they helped a woman who has the very common condition of sudden light-headedness when standing up.
“We strategized with her,” she said, “with getting up and stretching before she gets her coffee; then doing some exercises when she sits down with her coffee and watches ‘Good Morning America.’ ”
One session brings in a health professional to demonstrate ways to safely fall, or recover from one. There’s discussion on whether a safety button on a string around the neck is a good idea for an individual, whether a person has a neighbor who looks in on them occasionally.
Already a regular at the gym, John Walsh, 95, of McKeesport, a World War II vet, said he was looking for more help with his balance through the class at the Aging Institute.
“My balance is terrible. I had a lot of fear of falling,” he said, adding that he’s never broken a bone and hopes to keep it that way. His daughter lives with him.
“The benefit of the group is people share things,” Ms. Starsky said. “I learn things. It’s useful and powerful. We say we’re all facing this.”
If an organization is interested, she said, they can send someone to be trained. Ms. Starsky can be reached at 412-247-7816 or [email protected].
Jill Daly: [email protected] or 412-263-1596.