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MARILYN HAGERTY: Class helps people find balance, gain strength and step carefully

In the course of my lifetime, I have been to piano lessons, confirmation classes, driver education sessions.

I have been to writing seminars. I have taken training on computers.

But never — until this past week — had I been to classes for falling. Yep, falling.

I still wasn’t sure why the Grand Forks County Extension Agent Donna Bernhardt and Bill Vasicek, the community safety coordinator for Altru Health System, were leading such a class.

After all, I don’t need lessons for falling and getting up.

Then I went for a second visit to the class that is meeting Wednesday mornings at Holy Family Church. And after a little while, I began to see what was up.

It’s a matter of balance. And the instructors in the class, including Meridee Danks who is an assistant professor of physical therapy at UND, knows all about balance.

I was thinking people needed to worry this time of year — with the snow melting and the ice on walkways. I found out that falling is a problem all year round.

Vasicek told us injuries from falls are the No. 1 cases coming into the emergency room at Altru.

There are hip fractures, broken arms and legs, he said. “It’s all ages — especially in the winter with people coming in every day from falling on the ice. Or children injured on playgrounds.”

Strength and balance

Little by little, I began paying attention.

They talked of uneven sections of sidewalks. They talked of throw rugs that people trip over in the living room. They told us that one in three people over 65 are injured each year in falls.

I was beginning to see why it wouldn’t hurt to learn about balance. Danks told of exercises to build up muscles even in people over 60, or 70 or 80.

“It’s important for balance,” she said. “Walking is great for endurance, but it doesn’t strengthen our muscles. We need to do both in order to feel better and keep our minds alert.”

When you exercise, it takes four to six or seven weeks to feel a difference, Danks said. But there are benefits if it becomes part of a routine.

The class includes discussion on vision, medications, shoe safety. And Danks said people can increase muscle strength at any age.

“There are little things that help,” Vasicek said. “There is a solution for people who have a hard time getting turned around and out of a car seat.

“For that,” he said, “you can just lay a plastic bag on the seat and slide right in or out on your left leg.”

Beyond that, there are bars that are handy and can be installed in cars.

Careful steps

In these sessions on balance and falling, you are reminded a covered patch of ice or pothole filled with snow can create a fall. You should go heel first and then toe down as you walk. Take slower, smaller steps when walking over ice or snow. Use rock salt or sand to create traction on icy walks.

There are walking sticks and grips for shoes that can help prevent falls.

Above all, there are exercises you can do to help preserve or create a better sense of balance. I think I came close to flunking most of them. I am not too proud of my report card.

But I learned how to do some exercises for my feet and ankles. I watched others get from a sitting to standing position without grasping on to something. I watched when they demonstrated how to stand on one foot. I cannot do that. I will get better, I tell myself. I can do these exercises during the commercials when I watch the evening news.

It may have been Confucius. I am not sure. But somebody has said, “Our greatest glory is not never falling, but in rising when we do.”

 Reach Marilyn Hagerty at or by telephone at (701) 772-1055.