Live streaming dance class aims to help rural seniors avoid falls

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Live streaming dance class aims to help rural seniors avoid falls

It was a series of face plants that got Ruth Snider worried.  

"I would trip over almost nothing," she said. "The worst was when I did it on the driveway, which is gravel." 

The 65-year-old resident of the village of Ennismore, Ont., was lucky. She avoided serious injuries. But she kept falling and knew it was a matter of time before she did real damage.

She said she thought to herself that her situation was getting bad — and knew she needed to do something.

"I need to have control."

Help can be especially hard to find for seniors in rural Canada. Programs and services are more difficult and expensive to deliver outside of major population centres.

But Snider, who lives in an area with a relatively high number of seniors, was lucky again.

Ennismore, a small community not far from Peterborough, was selected for an innovative, experimental program designed to keep rural seniors on their feet and in their homes.

For weeks, a group of active seniors was given specialized training with instructors from Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto. The instructors never leave the school's headquarters in Toronto, but show up in a live streaming exercise class that teaches ballet techniques and other dance moves.

The ultimate goal is to increase strength while restoring balance and confidence for seniors who could easily be isolated.

"I have no doubt that dance for older adults can save lives," said Rachel Bar, Manager of Health and Research Initiatives at the school.

"I have seen it."

There is ample, published research that indicates dance programs can help people with Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. This experiment, involving the Trent Centre for Aging and Society and the Baycrest Health Sciences Centre, is examining whether a remotely delivered dance program can reduce the frequency and risk of falls in rural seniors.

The first step was Snider's class — to see whether live streaming, which is an inexpensive way to reach out to people in rural areas — would get seniors moving.

"We were not sure if technology was a barrier for this crowd," said Bar. It clearly wasn't.

At a recent class, the seniors followed the instructors on a video monitor, enthusiastically mimicking the moves on the screen for the hour-long class.  They pushed themselves to complete exercises, the workout demanding but completed with plenty of good humour and wisecracks from the seniors.

Snider, tired but cheerful after class, had no complaints.

"I'm doing much better," she said. "I have much more control over my movements every day, let alone falling down. I see that difference in six weeks."

Classes have ended for her. Phase two will involve another round of classes in as many as half a dozen communities.

This time, participants will undergo a series of tests before and after the program, in order to assess the actual impact on balance and strength.

The stakes are high.

"Falls prevention is one of the key determinants of older peoples' well being," said Prof. Mark Skinner of the Trent Center for Aging and Society. "A fall or some sort of injury is something that often cascades into institutionalization and people having to go through hospital systems."

That can mean complications, loss of strength and a dramatic decrease in quality of life — all from a single stumble.

Bar, a former ballet dancer who conducted many of the classes in the initial phase, has no doubt the experiment will produce results.

"I know that is making a huge impact on the participants in our program," she said. "We could have a cost effective, meaningful, physical, and I would say social or spiritual program for our seniors all over the country, and that's really exciting."

Snider and her classmates are believers. They are even lobbying for another round of classes, unwilling to give up the weekly sessions and the progress they have made.

Snider no longer falls and is walking and living with renewed confidence.

"Not fearing falling at all," she said. "Which is lovely."