UMATILLA COUNTY — More than 15% of Umatilla County’s population is 65 or older, 2018 U.S. Census data showed, and according to a preliminary population report from Portland State University released last week, all of Oregon’s population is growing older.
For those 65 and older, specifically, this comes with an increased risk of serious injury from falling.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 million older people are treated for fall injuries in emergency departments every year. Injuries range from broken bones — 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures every year — to concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.
Once somebody falls, the CDC says, their chances of falling again double. The result, regardless of injury, is also a heightened fear of falling, which can lead to lower activity levels and an enhanced risk of falling due to a weaker body.
To help combat the problem, Hermiston’s Good Shepherd Health Care System provides interactive classes and other resources on fall prevention geared toward senior citizens.
Earlier this month, they held a two-hour fall prevention seminar that promoted healthy exercises to build strength and balance, along with education on recognizing the signs of a potential brain injury.
“A person may fall and hit their head but show no noticeable signs of a concussion,” Good Shepherd community health educator Jessica Reker said.
Good Shepherd will be hosting another fall prevention seminar on Dec. 7, Reker said, with more planned throughout 2020.
For a longer, more in-depth class on fall prevention, Good Shepherd is also teaching a six-week course called Matter of Balance that begins in January. The class will be held at the Cottonwood Apartments in Hermiston, with another session planned at the senior center in the spring.
All of Good Shepherd’s classes are free of charge and open to the public. Reker said they’ve had caregivers in class who have used what they learn to help their own clients.
In addition to its interactive classes, Good Shepherd also works directly with connection teams, Reker said, which are made up of community paramedics that go out to clients’ homes and provide fall risk assessments.
“They’ll look to see if there are rugs, what’s the lighting like, are there stairs, what’s the path to the bedroom like,” she said.
The risk assessments are similar to those performed in the region by the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon’s, or CAPECO’s, Area Agency on Aging Department.
“Our goal is to support people in being successful in living how they want to live,” said Annie Kimbrel, a case manager with CAPECO.
Often, she said, senior citizens have the goal of remaining independent and living at home.
Kimbrel conducts the risk assessments, and while they aren’t specifically just for fall prevention, she said they include identifying whether pathways throughout the home are clear, whether there’s a pet that could become a tripping hazard, whether or not the person uses a walker or cane, and more.
Kimbrel said she’ll also discuss whether emergency alert services would benefit them.
For some people, though, there comes a time when more help is needed.
Alanna Thompson-Poore, a nurse at Juniper House, an assisted living and memory care community in Pendleton, said many of their residents have moved in because of previous falls or the fear of one in the future.
Along with providing living areas with falling prevention in mind, Juniper House also has an activities coordinator that runs exercises and programs Monday through Friday. Many activities either are explicitly designed, or can be modified, to be done sitting down, while still promoting healthy activity to build strength, reduce risks of falling and overcome the fear of it.
From 2007-16, falling deaths in the U.S. rose more than 30% for older adults, according to the CDC. At that rate, there would be seven deaths from falls every hour by 2030.
But as Umatilla County’s population becomes older and more vulnerable to falls, resources throughout the region are here trying to prevent it.