Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall-related injury — and each year, more than three million older adults are injured in a fall. That translates to more than 850,000 hospitalizations, 29,000 deaths and $50 billion in annual health care costs.
In response to this critical health issue, Marymount University and local senior-serving organizations have drawn on two federal grants for the past four years, totaling over $1 million, to help reduce the number of falls among older adults in Northern Virginia. Thanks to an initial grant from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living, and a second grant in 2018, Marymount has laid the foundation for a falls prevention infrastructure across Northern Virginia.
“Falls in older adults continue to be a major public health issue,” said Dr. Rita Wong, Associate Vice President for Research at Marymount and principal investigator of the grant team. “You can’t prevent all falls, but you can drastically reduce the number of older adults who fall, and particularly the number who fall and get hurt.”
Joining Wong as investigators are Dr. Sara Pappa (Assistant Professor of Health and Human Performance, and coordinator of the Northern Virginia Falls Prevention Alliance), Dr. Uma Kelekar (Associate Professor of Health Care Management) and four faculty members from the Physical Therapy program — Dr. Diana Venskus, Dr. Cathy Elrod, Dr. Julie Ries and Dr. Jade Bender-Burnett.
During National Falls Prevention Awareness Week, which lasts from Sept. 21-25, Marymount and its community partners are hosting several virtual falls prevention events (click here for more details).
As a result of grant funding, more than 378 people have been trained to be lay leaders of evidence-based falls prevention programs, 173 falls prevention workshops have been held across the region and the Northern Virginia Falls Prevention Alliance was established, which has more than 110 members.
To date, these programs have reached 3,985 older adults. During the second round of funding, Marymount faculty are working to:
- Expand the activities of Marymount’s regional training office that prepares lay leaders/coaches to run evidence-based falls prevention programs.
- Provide support to community organizations in establishing falls prevention programs.
- Foster the full maturity of the Northern Virginia Falls Prevention Alliance.
- Build a robust referral network for falls prevention programs.
- Establish academic-community partnerships for falls prevention and optimal aging promotion.
The grant has helped older adult community groups in Northern Virginia establish three evidence-based falls prevention programs — Stay Active and Independent for Life (SAIL), a strength, balance and fitness program for older adults who are at low-to-moderate risk for falling; Matter of Balance, which features small group sessions led by a trained facilitator designed to reduce the fear of falling and familiarize older adults with balanced-focused exercise activities; and Otago Exercise Program, a series of strength and balance exercises targeting older adults at high risk for falling, implemented under the guidance of a physical therapist.
“Staying physically active and exercising regularly are vital to minimizing the risk of falling,” Dr. Pappa explained. “Specific types of exercise have been demonstrated to be effective in decreasing the risk. Evidence-based programs tend to be more structured and require specific training of exercise leaders, which can be difficult to incorporate into general community exercise programs with small budgets. Additionally, older adults are often more hesitant to exercise, and unrealistically fear that increased activity will cause them to fall.”
In an effort to maintain a presence in the community during COVID-19, Dr. Pappa and other partners have been offering virtual SAIL programs over Zoom. This has allowed older adults in the community to continue to improve their fitness levels and decrease their risk of falling.
For more information on falls, falls prevention programs or how to get involved, visit the Northern Virginia Falls Prevention Alliance website.