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HELPING TO KEEP SENIORS BALANCED

People like to joke about that commercial that used to run on cable TV where a woman prone on the floor called out, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up." But for seniors and their caregivers, falling is no laughing matter. One bad fall can start a cascade of problems that can rob seniors of their mobility and independence and create complications for their caregivers.

Falls are serious business in Pinellas because of its older population. Last year, more than 13,000 calls were made to Pinellas 911 because of falls. It is estimated that one in three senior Americans over age 65 falls each year.

For Christine Hamacher, 46, the impact of falls was brought home when her normally self-reliant mother fell in the kitchen. Her mother didn't break any bones, but she was left with bruises down one side of her body, spent hours in the emergency room and suffered pain for weeks. Even after the bruises healed, fear of falling again lingered, and weeks after the accident she still needs help with activities she previously handled on her own.

Hamacher is the coordinator of an upcoming event that will interest anyone concerned about falls. "Staying Balanced Inside & Out" will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at Dunedin's Hale Senior Activity Center, 330 Douglas Ave., and it is free to anyone who wants to come.

There will be balance and exercise demonstrations, chances to handle home safety products and equipment, question-and-answer sessions with health experts, and more, including $3,000 in prizes. The event was organized by the Fall Prevention Coalition of Better Living for Seniors.

"Our goal is to empower seniors and their caregivers in finding answers before the problems arise, eliminating the crisis from hitting and causing irreversible damage," said Hamacher, who chairs the Fall Prevention Coalition. "Through education and trusted resources, we are showing people how to reclaim their independence and freedom and live life to the fullest despite limitations."

The risk of falls is high for seniors because of a number of factors, including dizziness caused by inner ear problems or medication side effects; muscle weakness; impaired senses such as poor vision or neuropathy caused by diabetes or other diseases; chronic health problems; and home safety issues. Even a lack of proper nutrition can raise the risk of falling.

"There are a lot of complications after a fall," Hamacher said, "and they can quickly lead to changes that can't be reversed."

Those who hit their heads may end up with brain injuries and symptoms of dementia. People who are hospitalized after a fall can get infections or catch communicable diseases while in the hospital setting, Hamacher said. And people who have fallen may develop a fear of moving, which leads to even weaker muscles.

"The more sedentary you are, the more problems you develop with your balance," Hamacher said.

"Staying Balanced Inside & Out" will show seniors and their caregivers the importance of keeping their bodies strong through activity, exercise and good nutrition. Experts will demonstrate exercises to improve flexibility of ankles and wrists and build muscle strength so seniors are less likely to fall, or they can break a fall with their hands and arms. Panels of experts will answer questions, and attendees will be able to try equipment designed to help them live more safely at home.

Nothing will make the organizers happier than to see hundreds of people show up.

"We want people to make a difference in their own lives," Hamacher said.

- dsteinle@tampabay.com

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FAST FACTS

If you go

Free event focusing on how to prevent falls.

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Hale Senior Activity Center, 330 Douglas Ave., Dunedin

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