Reporter Juliet Rowan finds out how prevalent falls are for the elderly and what to do to reduce the risk of having one.

A programme aimed at preventing falls among the elderly is gaining popularity in Tauranga and those involved say the results are remarkable for participants.

Suffering a fall is something that afflicts almost 500,000 New Zealanders every year.

Many of the victims are elderly people and it is not only their body that is damaged, but also their confidence and self-esteem.

The good news is that many falls are preventable, and the key lies in increasing muscle strength and balance.

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Many locals have signed up for a new fall prevention programme, which is proving popular.

"They improve their confidence, their self-esteem, and they can handle things better," says local falls prevention co-ordinator Angelika Gillen.

"With all the exercises, you build up your confidence again. If people have fallen, they lose their confidence."

Angelika works for Age Concern Tauranga, which began running the SAYGo Strength and Balance programme for people aged 65 plus in autumn this year. Already, there are six classes in the city and Omokoroa, and Angelika plans to launch two more before the year's end.

The programme's introduction to Tauranga follows the success of the initiative in other centres, and Age Concern encourages all elderly people to attend.

Participants at classes range in age from their sixties to over 90.

Falls come at a massive cost to elderly people and society, and ACC says although they are common, many falls can be prevented.

The SAYGo programme is based on falls prevention research and exercises developed by Otago University's physiotherapy school, and is supported by ACC and the Ministry of Health.

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Over 10 weeks, participants learn gentle exercises designed to improve balance, leg strength and general fitness.

They warm up in a chair, followed by standing and walking exercises, some involving light weights. The warm-down includes eye exercises aimed at improving peripheral vision.

Angelika, a former advertising executive who joined Age Concern as an accredited visitor for elderly people, is astounded how quickly people's strength improves.

"It's amazing," she says. "Most of them can only do four or five sit-to-stand exercises at the start, but by 10 weeks, they are doing 20. They also get more flexible and as they strengthen their balance, they can reach out further."

Most participants have suffered falls in the past and the programme is designed to encourage them to continue the exercises for life.

Although the course lasts 10 weeks, Angelika trains a class member to lead the group once the formal sessions have ended and she continues to monitor progress when the peer leader takes over.

In Dunedin, some classes have now been running 10 years.

Grace Mather is one who has become a big fan of the Tauranga classes and says the social aspect is part of what motivates her to attend.

Every Tuesday, the 80-year-old Pyes Pa resident rides her mobility scooter an hour each way to her class at Arcadia Manor on Edgecumbe Rd.

"I just look up at the clouds every now and then and say, 'please don't rain'," Grace laughs. "I go because it really helps. It helps especially with balance. I've started bending my knees and that's something I couldn't do before."

Grace suffers from osteoarthritis and, although she has not suffered any falls, she says the condition limits how fast she walks.

As well as doing the exercises in class, she also does them at home each morning,

She says getting out of a chair is much easier now and she urges anyone to give the programme a try: "It won't do any harm for younger people to come, say those in their forties. If they don't exercise, it's a very, very good way to start."

Grace emigrated from South Africa two years ago and enjoys the great company: "You are going to do yourselves a favour if you join. It's fun. You have a good laugh. It's a bit of a social life for those who don't get out much."

The cost of falls
• Falls are the cause of half of all ACC claims and costs in people aged 65 years and over.
• Falls account for 75 per cent of injury-related hospital admissions.
• Common injuries from falls include hip, leg, arm and neck fractures.
• Hip fractures frequently result in death, with nearly 20 per cent of people dying within a year of a hip fracture.
• After falling, 48 per cent of older people report a fear of falling and 25 per cent report curtailing activities.
- ACC