Akron’s reach program reaching new heights in keeping seniors a bit safer from falls

Published: Apr. 13, 2023 at 6:31 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - The uncertainty maneuvering around his home is growing for Milan Korora as he becomes a bit more unsure of his footing as he climbs a flight of stairs or steps into the shower.

Korora, who lives in Akron, has come to grips with aging but he quite simply does not want to fall and begin the downward spiral of health that often follows a fall.

“I know there is potential for it and the way my health is now, it kind of goes up and down, so I mean I don’t want it to happen,” he said.

And Korora has good reason to want to keep his feet firmly planted in his home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls were the leading cause of injury death for Americans over 65, claiming 36,000 lives in 2020, and falls sent three million people to emergency rooms across the country.

In 2021 according to the C.D.C., 1,650 Ohioans died after falling.

Fire and EMS crews across the country have noticed and that includes in Akron where not only noticed that they were spending significant resources on making runs, city-wide, for falls but they also noticed a disturbing trend, according to Mike Fuller from Akron Fire and EMS, about the specifics of the calls.

“They were noticing that they were going out to the same people over and over for the same issue, falls,” Fuller said.

So instead of sitting back, while lives were at risk, and crews made the same ems runs over and over, they developed, in Akron, what they call REACH which stands for Resources, Education and Advocacy for Community Health.

The REACH program provides several services and among them is a chance for senior citizens, who feel they may be at risk for a fall, an opportunity for a home assessment,.

Fuller works the REACH program full time and makes contact with older adults who have fallen and called 911 for help, and if they are willing, he’ll assess the fall dangers that exist in a home and then, free of charge, provide a simple fix or two, like a grab bar on a flight of stairs, or by the shower or the tub.

The REACH program, Fuller believes was born out of necessity.

“A lot of people don’t ever realize until they have an accident, and maybe they are in rehab and they realize when they get home they don’t want to fall in the shower again,” he said.

Launched in 2019 REACH also grew from the department’s belief that if fire prevention was crucial to its mission, then it would follow that fall prevention should be as well.

Akron Fire District Chief Chris Karakis oversees Akron EMS and for him, the program helps provide a solution and is simply practical.

“Our ems volume has kept rising and we need to quit throwing resources at it and start looking at how we can reduce those calls to 911,” he said.

The program was initially fueled by referrals, but now as seniors across the area have heard about the program they are calling before they actually have a fall and that includes Milan Korora.

“We found out about this program it came right at the right time because I am not getting any better,” he said.

Fuller said the call volume speaks volumes about the program and there has been a noticeable reduction in the number of calls they are taking, especially among those seniors who had made multiple calls to 911.

In Lakewood, they have taken notice, not so much about what Akron has accomplished but at the sheer volume of calls they receive to fire and ems in the city.

Lakewood Assistant Chief Nicholas Sambula watched as the number of calls continued to increase and put that fact together with other factors in the city and realized a fall prevention program had the potential to be successful.

“By focusing on falls it did address the facts that we have an aging population and older built homes and we want to try and keep our aging population so that they can age at home,” he said.

Lakewood Fire has partnered with Lakewood Alive a community development non-profit and they run a similar program to Akron’s as they start the process with a home assessment.

Mark McNamara is the Community Engagement Specialist for Lakewood Alive and he said the program starts helping older people avoid falling, but that’s just the start of removing anxiety for some.

“And most people don’t want to leave their homes, I get it, you’ve been there 50 years and you don’t want to go anyplace else,” he said.

And in Lakewood, there are health concerns that are built into the housing stock, much of which is older, which in most cases means smaller rooms that are hard to navigate. And Lakewood’s housing, in the majority of neighborhoods, is known as vertical which means there are multiple floors and plenty of stairs.

Allison Urbanek is the Operations Manager for Lakewood Alive.

“A fall can be life-changing for anyone in their lifetime but for any aging senior a fall could be deadly,” she said.

Lakewood EMS gets about 800 calls a year for falls and those calls now get an automatic follow-up and a request to fall victim or their family to provide an assessment of the fall risks in the home.

“So the focus on this now is kind of looking at risk reduction as a global whole thing we provide, fire and ems, so we wanted to take reduction on the ems side of things as well,” Sambula said.

Can the program in Akron or in Lakewood prevent every fall? Of course not, but these are 2 large communities that have seen a problem and found a solution that seems to be working for their specific needs.