January 22, 2018 | Hannah Ebeling


Calvin College Rehabilitation Clinics offer an array of services including speech, occupational, and physical therapy, audiology, and social work.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls are the number one cause of injuries among senior adults, sometimes resulting in death, said Steve Vanderkamp, clinic director of Calvin College Rehabilitation Services. He says these events can lead to a loss of independence, even to the point where a person with poor balance has to move into a facility for more help and support.

"Even if a person has not experienced a fall, the fear of having a fall can be so powerful that that person may give up many important activities as a means to prevent a fall," said Vanderkamp. "However, in many instances, with the proper treatment, a person can improve his or her balance to the point where that the risk of falls is reduced enough. A multidisciplinary approach by appropriate health care providers is important in identifying the causes for loss of balance and falls and creating the right treatment program."

Calvin's speech pathology department recently received a $433,394 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund that will help position itself as a key partner in helping prevent falls among the aging population.

“The grant allows us to work collaboratively with other health programs at Calvin, at Western Michigan University and with community agencies to develop an innovative fall prevention program for seniors,” said Vanderkamp. “The grant allows us to introduce our students to a cutting-edge model of assessing and working with clients.  And perhaps, most importantly, it will also provide excellent exposure for Calvin’s good work in the West Michigan community.”

Initiating fall prevention for seniors

Calvin College will be working alongside the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan (AAAWM) in order to provide valuable fall-prevention classes to seniors in the community. AAAWM provides an array of services to individuals over 60, making it their mission to help the older persons' demografic maintain independence in a safe environment. “When we first submitted this grant, I found out AAAWM had also received a grant for fall prevention,” said Judith Vander Woude, professor of speech pathology. “I talked to the executive director of the grant, Anne Ellermerts, who said they were doing some really cool stuff. So, we connected with them, and we clicked.”

The AAAWM runs an evidence-based class called Matter of Balance for seniors who have a history or fear of falling. “A matter of balance really goes through concern versus fear, managing thoughts about falling and exploring fall prevention,” said Vander Woude. The class costs participants only $25 for eight weeks of education and exercise in a group setting. The grant will allow Calvin to provide classes to about 300 older persons over the next two years. Offering these classes can be very expensive, so AAAWM is always looking for additional funding to sustain their programs. “So, they were thrilled and we were thrilled,” said Vander Woude.

“Given our interprofessional focus since day one, this grant enables our team to do important fall prevention education that is affordable for the participants,” said Vanderkamp. “We are now at a point where we can contribute to the body of knowledge with the application of population health models to address a widely problematic issue: poor balance and falls leading to significant injury, loss of function and even early death.” 

Developing a new model

In partnership with AAAWM, Calvin is initiating a new model for healthcare providers to address fall prevention. “After two years we have developed a model with data backing it,” said Vander Woude. After screenings, seniors will be recommended to participate in a Matter of Balance Class or encouraged to use a number of other services through the Calvin College Rehabilitation Clinic. “We are predicting that over 200 of the people we screen will probably benefit the best from a Matter of Balance class,” she said. “For those who have more complicated health issues—patients with more than just a fear of falling or balance issues—we will provide additional services at the rehab center.

“The interprofessional work that we do within the clinic has helped our team to realize how important it is to address the many parts of the person when attempting to solve a problem, enabling us to develop more cohesive treatment plans,” said Vanderkamp. “We now can carry that new knowledge into this new program, whereby we endeavor to provide a more holistic, coordinated treatment approach to addressing falls and balance in a more community-based environment.”

Embracing a collaborative approach

Developing a new program is a community-wide effort, bringing together individuals from campus and beyond. “This is a collaborative initiative between the occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech pathology, and nursing departments,” said Vander Woude. “We are also working with the association of the blind and visually impaired. We have done some health screenings with them in the past, so they will be looking at vision during our screenings.”

In addition, students are working on the initiative as well. “We have three to four speech pathology students, two occupational therapy students, social work students, and nursing students working with us,” said Vander Woude. “It’s really fun—and great experience for the students—to have all these different disciplines working together.” 

The new integrated balance program will begin at Calvin College Rehabilitation Clinics in March 2018.

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