Preventing falls, Mae moves forward

Mae portrait

At age 96, Mae Schatteman of Iowa City has a youthful exuberance that inspires smiles wherever she goes. And as she cheerfully invites everyone she meets to her 100th birthday party, Mae shows no signs of slowing down. But she is careful to watch her step along the way.

That’s because Mae took part in Stepping On, a seven-week fall-prevention workshop for older adults offered jointly by the University of Iowa Health Care Division of Acute Care Surgery and the Visiting Nurse Association of Iowa City.

“I want to keep energetic,” Mae says. “I have a garden that I work in. I clean my own house. I do my cooking. And I want to be able to do those things. Stepping On was the answer.”

Stepping On is an evidence-based program originally developed by occupational therapists in Australia. It teaches participants how to decrease their chances of falling.

UI Health Care injury prevention coordinator Kathy Lee, MSN, RN, says Stepping On is part of a broader community effort, supported state-wide by the Iowa Department of Public Health, to keep people like Mae happy and healthy.

“Falls are the most frequent cause of trauma in older adults,” Lee says, “and they’re certainly the most common cause of death from trauma in older adults.”

Stepping On has been shown to reduce falls by 31 percent, which Lee says could have a huge impact if enough people take the course.

“Between 2010 and 2014, 2,323 people in Iowa were killed by falls,” Lee says. “If you reduce that by one-third, that’s over 700 lives that might have been saved.”

Lee says UI Health Care will also partner with agencies in communities beyond Johnson County to help bring fall-prevention programs to as many Iowans as possible.

Other offerings include: Tai Chi for Arthritis, which teaches a modified, low-impact form of tai chi that has proven to keep people engaged in their exercise regimens longer; and A Matter of Balance, a program for people who are frail or less mobile, such as those in assisted living facilities.

While Stepping On addresses the importance of walking and other low-impact exercise to keep ankles and other parts of the body stable, it also covers many other less-obvious fall-risk factors with the help of guest experts.

A pharmacist tells the group about the often-overlooked impact of medications and herbal supplements on fall risk. Community safety experts discuss the safest routes for older adults to use when getting around town. An ophthalmologist or optometrist outlines the relationship between vision and balance.

For Mae, one of the most valuable lessons was about making her home safer. She got rid of throw rugs, and she emptied overhead cabinets in the kitchen. Now she stores everything at counter level or below to avoid ever having to take her feet off the floor.

“I realized that I was using a stool,” she says. “I gave that stool away so I wouldn’t use it.”

Mae says she encourages everyone to take Stepping On, though she knows that for some people, the most significant obstacle to getting there is self-imposed.

“As you get older, you get stubborn,” she says. “You get to the point where you don’t want to listen to people. All I can say is, if this means anything, I have a happy, happy life. And I’m so glad I’m here.”