Falls prevention program

A group practices tai chi in Murphys Community Park as part of a falls prevention program.

Participants observed National Fall Prevention Awareness Day and celebrated one year of Stay Vertical Calaveras with a session of tai chi at Murphys Community Park on Sept. 23.

According to program director Steve Shetzline, Stay Vertical has surpassed all expectations in its first year, growing to encompass 10 different class sites, hosting nearly 500 participants throughout the county. A “top priority” of the Mark Twain Health Care District, the program has already secured funding for next year, with plans to continue its model of offering free strength and balance training to an aging Mother Lode population.

“The health care district is super supportive, and not just financially,” said Shetzline, who organized fall prevention classes at Murphys Senior Center prior to being chosen by the district to take his expertise countywide. “I’ve been here for 20 years doing programs like this, all different kinds of programs. I’ve never had somebody adopt it like that.”

An evaluation of 35 participants performed during the past year demonstrated significant benefits gained from the completion of 10 to 16 classes during an eight-week period, with all 35 subjects showing improvement in strength, mobility and/or balance, according to Shetzline.

The average age of the participants was 71, and the oldest subject was 89 years old.

One pitfall of the program has been recruiting men to participate, with a current enrollment that is approximately 90% female, Shetzline said. Another has been encouraging participants to complete the recommended number of classes within a specific time frame.

“All the data suggests that they get serious strength, mobility and balance improvements from one hour, twice a week, for eight weeks,” Shetzline said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is just one agency that recommends balance and strength training, specifically tai chi, to combat the unsteadying effects of aging, in addition to regular eyesight evaluations and installing safety features at home.

As people continue to enjoy longer lives, a growing awareness has formed around the nationwide “falling epidemic,” which refers to roughly 3 million emergency visits each year for the elderly, according to the CDC. The leading cause of traumatic brain injury, medical costs for falls totaled over $50 billion in 2015.

The fear of falling, too, can negatively impact the lifestyles of the elderly, with otherwise healthy senior citizens limiting their activities and further weakening their bodies and thus, further increasing their risk of a fall, the CDC reported.

For those participating in Stay Vertical, the weekly sessions provide a welcoming social space to connect with others and grow more confident in their physical abilities.

Ninety-seven-year-old Mim Trumper is a newcomer to the program but said she has already noticed improvements in her balance and sleep quality.

“I enjoy the company, and I like going through the different demonstrations,” said Trumper, who attends weekly classes at Murphys Diggins. She suffers from neuropathy in her feet and usually finishes her sessions seated in a chair.

“Anybody can do tai chi, really. I think you really have to want it,” said Ruth Ann White, 75, of Arnold. “We laugh, we don’t make fun of each other and we’re always making mistakes, but we’re always correcting them.”

White has been practicing tai chi for over 40 years but has gained a deeper appreciation for the martial art through Stay Vertical.

“At this stage in my life, I am able to really focus,” White said. “Before, I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to really shut everything else out.”

The uplifting and calming effects of tai chi, coupled with strengthening of key muscles, have also helped participants battle depression, chronic pain and breathing problems.

Instructor of three years Pat Moline, 65, said that tai chi helped her get out of a wheelchair following back surgery and improved balance in her husband, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Moline also teaches a class just for Parkinson’s patients under the umbrella of Stay Vertical, focusing on leg strength and coordination.

Mentee of Moline and fellow instructor Katherine Courtright said the classes have alleviated her pain from fibromyalgia and multiple surgeries.

“It brings stress levels down, lowers blood pressure—I can’t say enough about it,” Courtright said. “It is so wonderful for the mind, body and soul. It’s all-encompassing and does everything.”

For more information on Stay Vertical Calaveras locations and class times, visit mthcd.org/stay-vertical-calaveras.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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