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August 21, 2001

Class keeps seniors on their toes

Kinesiology and health science professor Lois Boulgarides helps Martha Fort learn techniques for avoiding falls during a class at the CSUS Life Center.A 92-year-old, wearing glasses designed to deliberately obscure her vision, teeters back and forth, trying to stay upright on a wobbly rocker board. A woman, age 72, attempts to walk across the room, as a ball is bounced directly in her path.

It's not a hazing ritual for senior citizens, it's a class at the CSUS Life Center, designed to reduce their risk of falling. And in each case, there's a student intern by their side, keeping them out of harm's way.

Falling is the leading cause of injury among seniors, resulting in about 200,000 hip fractures each year. Of those, a staggering 33 percent will die within the first year, says CSUS kinesiology professor Scott Modell, who created the fall risk reduction class with physical therapist Lois Boulgarides, a CSUS kinesiology lecturer and co-director of the Life Center.

The class meets for an hour, two days a week, for seven weeks in the University's Julia Morgan House. The class features one-on-one balance training, matching student volunteers and older adults. Some exercises are designed to increase strength, flexibility and range of motion. Others increase the participants' confidence thereby reducing fear of falling. Much of the class also focuses on the sensory systems seniors rely on for balance and on strategies for keeping balance if one of the sensory systems is impaired.

"We try to target one of the systems and challenge it," says Boulgarides. The idea is to simulate activities the seniors might have to face in every day life so they can learn adaptive techniques.

For example, as people get older, they become more dependent on their vision for balance at the same time their vision is diminishing. So the instructors put the seniors on an unsteady surface and have them close their eyes. Or they put obstacles in the path for them to step over as they cross the room.

They also have their elderly clients practice getting up off the floor, so they know if they fall, they can get back up.

All the while, Boulgarides and her students are careful to explain why they're having the seniors do what they're doing. "There's a reason we do everything, though sometimes we seem to do the silliest things," she says.

The student interns, from the kinesiology, physical therapy and gerontology departments, take turns teaching and leading the class. One of pre-physical therapy student Mollie Freeman's favorite things about the class is that the clients have varying levels of ability, which requires her to be creative in modifying her techniques. "They build our confidence as much as they build theirs. It's so neat because they want to get better," Freeman says.

"Everyone improves," Boulgarides agrees. "The risk of falling becomes much less likely."

Jean Redsun says she knew she needed the class after several falls, one of which broke her elbow. "I've been very, very pleased with the class," she says. "It's given me confidence to do things I wouldn't have tried to do before."

Boulgarides and Modell hope to increase the research component of the class. In addition to the pre- and post-class data they already compile on individual progress, they want to see how effective the class is compared with other programs.


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