Sue Awes likes upright people.

It's a matter of balance.

"We're the state with the fifth highest fall death rate," said Awes, the Help Our Neighbors (HON) director. "One-third of falls occur in and around the home. We're hoping to reduce that number, the number of people admitted to long-term care and essentially reduce health care costs by offering free home safety checks in conjunction with Olmsted Medical Center (OMC)."

HON is hosting several different efforts to help elderly Chatfield-area residents reduce their risks of falling and injuring themselves, including home safety checks and two fall prevention and exercise programs, "A Matter of Balance" and "Walk with Ease," this month and next.

Awes stated, "It's Older Americans Month in May, and we're trying to help keep older Americans safer and in their homes through these home safety checks and classes, as we're striving toward healthy living."

According to information provided by Awes from the Minnesota Department of Health's (MDH) website, "Minnesota had the fifth highest fall death rate in the U.S. at 14.03 per 100,000 people, adults age 65 and older accounted for more than 86 percent of Minnesota fall deaths." In the United States, "more than one-third of adults, aged 65 and over, fall each year. Falls are the leading cause of injury and hospital trauma admissions and individuals who fall at age 75 and older are four- to five-times more likely to be admitted to long-term care facilities for a year or more, compared to those who fall at age 65 to 74."

Factors that increase the risks of falling, as noted by MDH, include a history of falls - two falls or one fall with injury within the past 12 months. The risks also include a fear of falling, mobility problems due to impaired balance, muscle weakness or chronic health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes or stroke. Other risks are complications of chronic health conditions such as vision changes or loss of sensation in feet, poor nutritional status, medication side effects or interactions or alcohol use. There are also home and environmental hazards that contribute to the risks such as clutter, poor lighting, loose carpet, lack of railings on stairs, incorrect size, type or use of assistive devices such as walkers, canes and crutches and poorly-designed public spaces.

HON is working to prevent those falls and injuries through educating people about how to "modify fall risk factors." These are outlined in the MDH website's prevention tips, which shares effective strategies to reduce falls including screening adults who are over 65 and those at high risk for falls. This screening can include performing progressive balance and lower body strengthening exercises at least 150 minutes per week...and conduct home safety assessments and implement needed modifications.

Awes and a physical therapist from OMC will visit seniors' homes at their request on Saturday, June 29, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and assess what changes might be necessary to prevent injury.

"We did one home safety check in March and did three houses. The clients thought it was very helpful - we moved furniture away from entrances, cleared stairways, removed rugs and talked about ice removal. They thought it was very helpful," she added. "We're strictly coming to help prevent falls in the home, and we're doing it quarterly, so the next home safety checks would be in September. We encourage older adults who know that falls do happen to take advantage of the home safety checks."

"Walk with Ease," a program of the Arthritis Foundation, helps persons "take control, one step at a time, walking to reduce pain, increase balance, walk for a healthy life and manage your weight," as noted in the foundation's website.

The program meets three times a week for six weeks, and participants will exercise and build strength. "We're encouraging exercise for those who would like to build their muscle strength," Awes said. "That makes a lot of difference in how well people avoid falls."

The class is open to anyone any age, and participants will receive 18 sessions of instruction, a "Walk with Ease" book, water bottle and pedometer. "Walk With Ease" is slated for Monday, June 24, at 9:30 a.m. at Chatfield Lutheran Church.

"A Matter of Balance" has yet to be scheduled, but Awes is ready to invite as many people as would like to stay upright. The program's description reads, "A Matter of Balance' helps seniors from falling by providing practical strategies to reduce the fear of falling and increase activity levels. Through the fall prevention program, seniors learn how to view falls and the fear of falling as controllable, are shown how to set realistic goals to increase exercise to increase strength and balance, and make home modifications or home repairs or change their environment to reduce fall risk factors."

The program is meant for seniors concerned about falls, who have had a fall in the past, who restrict activities because of concerns about falling, and seniors who are interested in improving flexibility, balance and strength. It also explores thoughts and concerns about falling, exercise and fall prevention, assertiveness and fall prevention, managing concerns about falling, recognizing "fall-ty" habits and recognizing fall hazards in the home and community.

More information on the "A Matter of Balance" class is forthcoming.

Awes reiterated her invitation to the seniors of the Chatfield area to have their homes checked for fall risk factors and to join the classes being offered, because, as the HON-OMC home check poster delineates, "The average nursing home private room costs $83,000 a year, the average independent living community is $32,000 a year, but the Help Our Neighbors home safety visit is free, and maintaining independent living where things are familiar and private...priceless."

To register for classes or for more information on home safety checks, contact Sue Awes at HON, (507) 251-0520, or log onto the HON website at www.honseniorpartners.org.