WILLMAR -- It's commonplace for Connie Feig, director of the Atwater Area Living at Home Block Nurse Program, to hear her elderly clients talk about how they've slipped or stumbled or nearly fallen.
So when the Minnesota Department of Human Services launched an initiative recently to reduce the risk of falling among older Minnesotans, Feig saw it as a golden opportunity to improve people's safety.
"We really needed to work with falls," she said.
A new countywide coalition is taking steps over the next several months to boost local awareness and promote best-practice strategies to help prevent falls. The project is one of eight around Minnesota that recently received a Department of Human Services grant for the state initiative, called "Keeping Minnesota Right Side Up."
People can fall at any age, but the risk goes up substantially as they get older, said Tamara Kobienia, coordinator of the balance program at the Hearing and Balance Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.
It's estimated that between 30 and 60 percent of older people living in their own homes sustain a fall at some point. Minnesota ranks especially high in the number of falls reported each year.
It's the coalition's hope to reduce these numbers by bringing clinical expertise into the community -- and intervening before someone falls and gets hurt.
Prevention is "really the missing part" in addressing falls, Kobienia said. "We need to hit that first."
The Kandiyohi County Falls Prevention Coalition is taking an approach that leverages as many resources as it can. The group's key partners -- the Block Nurse Program, the Hearing and Balance Center at Affiliated, Rice Memorial Hospital's Rice Rehabilitation Center and the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging -- all work extensively with older persons.
The coalition also has formed a community advisory panel to gain the involvement of nursing homes, public health, home health agencies and others who provide services to older clients.
One of the messages that coalition members hope to convey: Older people aren't supposed to fall.
It's a surprisingly common mindset that once someone gets older, falls are inevitable, said Lynn Stier, director of the Rice Rehabilitation Center.
"I think we want to get the message out to people that it's not normal to fall," she said.
A fall or a near-fall can actually be a sign that something is amiss, Kobienia said.
It might be a side effect of medications, or poor vision, or decreased strength and balance, or problems with the inner ear, she said. Sometimes poor lighting or household hazards such as throw rugs can cause people to fall. In many cases it's a combination of several factors.
Whatever the reason, "they shouldn't be losing their balance or staggering," Kobienia said. "If they feel something is different, they should get it checked out. Falls can be prevented. Balance can be improved."
One of the coalition's key goals is to connect older people and their caregivers to community resources that can help.
"Raising public awareness is part of it. The other part is where to go," Feig said.
A next step will be to provide education to caregivers and learn about the needs that exist.
From there, the group hopes to establish a pathway through which older people can be referred for services.
Some services might be as basic as a home safety checklist, or a list of exercises designed to improve strength and flexibility and lower the risk of falling. Some people might need something more intensive, such as physical therapy.
Fear of falling can limit many older people's activities, often leading to isolation, Feig said.
"It gets much more complicated when you get a fracture," she said. "Those really do change your life."
Down the road, the coalition hopes to get involved in local public policy on making communities safer for older people to navigate -- clearly marked stairs and curbs, for instance, or sidewalk benches that encourage safe walking.
"We want it to be as comprehensive as we can get," Kobienia said.
Kate Selseth, director of the Area Agency on Aging, said that once the grant money runs out, the partner agencies will look for ways to address fall prevention on an ongoing basis.
"We intend to carry it forward," she said. "This is our seed money."
With the huge baby-boom generation on the edge of old age, it'll be increasingly important to prevent falls and keep people healthier as they get old, Feig said.
"I care because I work with these elderly who are falling," she said. "I think it's exciting to see all these entities now working side by side. It's the whole community saying we need to do this."