Falls Prevention Program Focus of $380,000 Grant

The National Institutes of Health has awarded $380,000 to researchers at the University of Maine Center on Aging, University of New England (UNE) and The Iris Network to study a falls prevention program for older citizens with vision impairment. Falls among older adults can lead to serious injury, loss of independence or death. The two-year project aims to inform community programs how to provide the best falls prevention information for older citizens.

The study will focus on the effectiveness of the UNECOM Balancing Act Program, a self-initiated falls prevention program that aims to improve balance and reduce falls. The program, designed at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine Department of Geriatric Medicine, requires only one training session and can then be done at home with no equipment or further instruction.

“In Maine and throughout the country, aging services are shifting toward community and in-home interventions allowing older adults to age in their homes and communities,” Jennifer Crittenden, fiscal and administrative officer of the UMaine Center on Aging, says.

Among the 65 and older population, 30 to 40 percent experience a fall, with vision-impaired seniors nearly twice as likely to fall, according to information from The Iris Network, an organization that provides services statewide to Maine people living with blindness and visual impairment.

“Accidental falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for those 65 years of age and older,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking member on the Senate Special Committee on Aging. “This grant will contribute to the important work being done at UMaine’s Center on Aging and help raise awareness and prevent life-threatening falls in the older adult population.”

Through a randomized controlled trial, researchers will be able to test the effectiveness of the UNECOM Balancing Act curriculum among seniors with visual impairment. The study will also examine the program’s potential for adoption by community-based programs such as Maine Area Agencies on Aging as a convenient, home-based plan that is user-friendly and accessible to older adults living in rural areas.

“These funds are welcome news for medical researchers throughout the state as well as those suffering from vision impairment,” U.S. Sen. Angus King said. “The UNECOM Balancing Act Program has the potential to help our elderly population live more safely in their homes and communities. This is especially important in a rural state like Maine, where easy and immediate access to medical facilities and treatment is often dependent upon location.”

Co-principal investigators for the study are Lenard Kaye, director of the UMaine Center on Aging and professor in the UMaine School of Social Work, and Marilyn Gugliucci, director of geriatrics education and research at the UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“The UNECOM Balancing Act Program was designed specifically for community dwelling older adults,” Gugliucci says. “Maine’s rurality makes it difficult for older adults to get to group programs, so having an opportunity to work on falls prevention in the home is quite important. To have the opportunity to adapt the Balancing Act Program for older adults with visual impairment will aid even more Mainers who want to maintain their independence.”

Subjects will be recruited from clientele of The Iris Network in York and Cumberland counties who are age 62 and older and who meet additional eligibility requirements. Participants will be randomized into control and treatment groups and will take part in a series of assessments that will help researchers understand the differences in outcomes between groups.

“Maine is often referred to as the oldest state in the nation. This grant will give us the opportunity to get out in front of a growing need in our elderly population, for whom a fall often signals the end to independent living,” Ruth Mlotek, director of vision rehabilitation services at The Iris Network, says.

The primary outcome measures of the study will be participant balance and frequency of falls. However, several other factors will also be measured, including pain, physical activity, fear of falling, perceived difficulty in performing the exercises, ability, motivation and predisposing factors for falls.

An additional aim of the study will be to determine if developing social networks will encourage participants to stick with the balancing exercises.

Research findings and the UNECOM Balancing Act Program will be disseminated among human service organizations through networks such as the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Maine Gerontological Society.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747