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Health Coaches and Acupuncturists Team Up to Reduce Falls Among the Elderly

Collaborative CIIS Research Project Helps Local Seniors

April 10, 2018

An innovative CIIS research project is exploring one of the most significant challenges to healthy aging: falls.

Falls are the leading cause of injuries, fatal and nonfatal, for elderly Americans. Falls can rob seniors of their independence and burden families; they also result in significant medical costs. According to experts, as devastating as falls can be, most are also largely preventable.

In July 2016, Carla Wilson, Ph.D., adjunct professor at CIIS' American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM), and Mirie Levy, DrPH, Integrative Health Studies program former faculty, launched the Balance Project, a research project on fall prevention. The goal of the project was to evaluate the influence of acupuncture and health coaching on reducing fall risk among the elderly. The project was funded by the Auen Foundation, which makes grants to benefit aging populations.

Community Connections

The CIIS team conducted their research in the SoMa neighborhood, at two neighboring public housing sites: the Edith Witt Senior Community and 10th and Mission Family Housing. Forty-five Taishanese-speaking (Taishanese is a Cantonese dialect), Filipino, Latino, and Russian-speaking elders participated in the study. The average age of the participants was 76.

Many factors can contribute to falls, including physical frailty and dizziness, and environmental obstacles such as area rugs and busy walkways. According to Wilson, the elderly people who participated in the study faced many risk factors for falls. Many had old physical injuries that had never healed. "They presented joint pain, bad knees, frozen shoulders," she said. "They are strong people, but many suffer chronic pain."

Edith Witt's location also poses hazards for the elderly, Wilson pointed out. "Ninth Street has lots of foot traffic and chaotic energy, and it's easy for the elders to get knocked over," she said. "Every week we asked people if they'd fallen, and if they had, it was usually outside the facility, on the sidewalk or crossing the street."

Students from both ACTCM and the Integrative Health Studies program participated in the research project, helping to treat the seniors with acupuncture, health coaching, or a combination of the two.

Medicine and Movement

An ACTCM-trained licensed practitioner, Tara Spalty, used acupuncture to treat elders who were experiencing chronic pain, numbness, and dizziness. Integrative Health Studies students conducted comprehensive interviews with each of the participants to evaluate their risk of falling.

"The students interviewed the elders to develop a coaching plan," said Meg Jordan, Integrative Health Studies chair. "Health coaching takes a 360-degree look at the individual's life: Where do they need more strengthening? Are they taking medications that could be causing balance problems? Are there diet and hydration issues? Students also did health education about fall risks and prevention."

As part of the programs, elders participated in exercise classes to increase their strength and mobility. Mackenzie Pike and Tricia Fitzpatrick, 2017 Integrative Health Studies graduates, taught movement classes, which were popular with the seniors. The classes focused on improving balance and leg strength, which can help prevent falls.

The study was conducted from November 2016 through August 2017. Wilson and Levy are evaluating the findings and making plans for publication.

Collaboration That Works

Both Jordan and Wilson hope the study will be a model for future CIIS research projects. The students who participated seized the opportunity for hands-on learning and developed strong bonds with the elders, who looked forward to their acupuncture sessions and exercise classes. "It felt good all around to take applied learning and put it into action in a neighborhood where they need it most," Jordan said.

Wilson says that since the project ended, some of the seniors have organized informal exercise classes of their own.

The classes were really popular, not just for the exercise, but for the social opportunities they created for the seniors," she said.

According to Wilson and Jordan, the cross-disciplinary nature of the project was what made it a success. "We found that health coaching goes hand with hand with Chinese medicine," said Jordan. "It's a beautiful marriage."

The Balance Project is made possible by a generous grant from the Auen Foundation.

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