BANGOR, Maine — Right fist clenched for strength, left palm open in friendship. The traditional Wushu salutation signaled the beginning of a recent tai chi class at Bangor Waterfront Park and the end of two-year pilot project to assess tai chi’s effectiveness in preventing falls among Maine seniors.
“Remember, every time you do tai chi, it is perfect,” trainer Erin Coltvet of the Eastern Area Agency for Aging called, speaking above the cries of seagulls over the Penobscot River. “That’s because you can follow the forms as far as you want. You can come to a pose where you feel comfortable and just rest there, and you can move through into the next form when you’re ready.”
Falls are a major cause of injury and debilitation among the elderly, according to national experts, and often mark the threshold between an older person’s ability to live independently and the need for placement in a care facility.
Tai chi, a centuries-old practice that developed in China as a form of self-defence, more often is employed in this country as a gentle form of physical exercise and mental focus — similar to yoga. Characterized by languid, choreographed movements and accompanied by deep, controlled breathing, tai chi can be practiced alone or in a group, just about anywhere. It requires no special clothing or equipment and is suited for people of all ages and levels of physical strength.
Tai chi has several distinct forms, some of which have been specifically adapted to improve chronic conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses tai chi as an effective strategy for preventing and countering risks and complications associated with aging and chronic disease, as do Harvard Medical School, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, the Arthritis Foundation and other reputable western health care institutions.
Because of this, the research division of Aetna health insurance company recently partnered with Maine’s Agencies on Aging to measure tai chi’s impact on preventing falls in the state’s Medicare population of people age 65 and older.
Many formal studies show tai chi’s positive overall impact on health and fitness, according to Teresa Dubiel of Aetna’s Innovation Labs, which measures health-related interventions for effectiveness. More specifically, she referenced a 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed tai chi’s effectiveness at improving posture, balance and motor control in people with Parkinson’s disease.
“But what we really wanted was to understand how well it works in the real world,” Dubiel said, noting that seniors’ ability to practice tai chi regularly can be affected by illness, transportation problems and other obstacles.
In 2013, Aetna provided funding to Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor, Spectrum Generations in Augusta and Southern Maine Agency on Aging in Portland to train people to lead tai chi classes. The funding also allowed participating agencies to offer free, twice-weekly tai chi classes for six months in rural areas in Maine, as well as in Bangor, Augusta and Portland.
Aetna selected Maine for the pilot project because of the state’s relatively small overall population, its aging demographic and its rural nature, Dubiel said.
Aetna funded another round of trainings and classes in 2014. Altogether, the program reached about 600 Mainers, including Aetna Medicare members and nonmembers, who participated in tai chi via group classes as well as DVD and online sessions. Results were compared against a 600-person control group that did not practice tai chi.
The first-year data, self-reported by participants, showed about 20 percent fewer falls and a 20 percent reduction in anxiety about falls compared with the control group, Dubiel said. The greatest improvements and the highest satisfaction with the program were reported by those who took twice-weekly group classes.
“We think the classroom group had such high levels of satisfaction due to the socialization element,” Dubiel said.
Data from the second year of the study, which will be collected over coming months, will measure whether the benefits of tai chi persist after seniors stop participating in regular classes.
“I thought at first I didn’t want to try it. It’s too slow, and I’m more of a jumping jacks kind of person,” 67-year-old Rita Bridges of Glenburn said during a break from the waterfront session. “But I tried it and I stuck with it, and now I absolutely love it.”
In addition to attending two classes each week at EAAA’s fitness annex at Bangor’s Airport Mall on Union Street, she practices alone at home each morning. Bridges said tai chi has brought her “centering and calmness” but also has helped her manage chronic pain and mobility problems related to an old illness.
“After six months of tai chi, I quit all my pain medication,” she said.
Based on the success of the Aetna program, Maine’s agencies on aging will continue offering tai chi classes to Mainers age 60 and older as part of the organization’s falls prevention strategy. Other community groups, including some of Maine’s Healthy Maine Partnership programs, also will offer tai chi classes this fall.
For more information about classes in your area, contact your local agency on aging by calling 1-877-353-3771.