TRAVERSE CITY — Pre-class conversation murmurs pleasantly as students shuffle in at Glen Eagle Holiday Retirement Village, some parking walkers, canes and wheelchairs next to their seats.
There's a wisecrack about a guy sitting "purposely" close to the muffins.
Then Jeana Seidelman smilingly cracks the whip, and her students breathe deep, peeling back sweatered shoulders, ready to release their fear of falling.
Her students put 65 in the rear-view years ago and their fear is justified — falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injury for this age group. Yet fearing falling causes more to happen, reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This means local agencies must take falls head on.
"It's a vicious cycle — you fall, develop a fear of falling again, you limit your activities to be safe but you become more weak and your chances of falling increase," said Darcia Brewer. "It's devastating to fall. That trauma and the long recovery just becomes ingrained in you. Even watching — it scares us to see someone fall at any age."
The Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan coordinator recently became a master trainer in "A Matter of Balance," a program launched this fall across the region, supported by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. The eight, two-hour sessions combine light exercise with prevention and planning.
Seidelman, a local yoga teacher, led her class through a series of moments geared to steady and strengthen them.
"I like showing that they are capable of doing more than they initially think," Seidelman said. "It depends on the person."
Suzanne Carnegie signed on to improve her balance.
"I don't do too bad, but I've got to watch it though," Carnegie said.
Don Evens had a previous spill and comes because "it gets me out of the house."
Organizers have had no problem recruiting students since the courses began and 20 newly-minted trainers signed on to teach the class at area town halls and senior centers.
Some people give up too many of the things they love for fear of falling, Brewer said.
"Some people won't go anywhere where there may be too many other people. I knew a woman who loved seeing shows at the theater but stopped going — she thought she'd get bowled over with her walker," Brewer said.
The class tackles each barrier and comes up with an active solution. In this case, the student started arriving earlier and leaving later. Other options would be getting the elevator key or asking for someone's arm, Brewer said.
"A Matter of Balance" also brings the subject into the open, as falling can be treated like a shameful secret. The CDC reports that one of three older people fall each year; about half don't tell anyone.
"They don't tell their kids and they don't tell their doctors," Brewer said. "They don't want their independence reduced as a result."
Rewriting old habits with a new mindfulness and dispelling myths helps people stand stronger — and longer — on their own two feet, Brewer said.
"It's practical and functional," Brewer said. "Plus if you fall, you learn to get up again."
Workshops are scheduled for Manistee, Charlevoix, Emmet and Benzie counties this spring and summer. The class is free; a $15 donation is appreciated. Visit www.aaanm.org or call 947-8920 for more information.