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Release: March 8, 2000

I-CASH warns elderly farmers to recognize risks, learn limitations

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Elderly farmers are often unwilling to recognize or accept the physical limitations they face as they get older. Daily farming activities can pose enormous risks to these farmers if they have arthritis, limited vision and hearing, depression or other conditions, according to specialists at Iowa's Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (I-CASH).

Kelley Donham, UI professor of occupational and environmental health and I-CASH director, said that elderly farmers are a special needs population that needs recognition and attention.

"Unlike other occupations, farmers may not retire," he said. "Farming is what they do and what they love to do. Some farmers keep working into their 80s or 90s. Elderly farmers are at risk for injuries because of decreased mobility, balance and judgment among other conditions that limit actions."

I-CASH, which works to reduce illness and injury among Iowa's agricultural population, has identified the inherent risks for elderly farmers as a problem that needs to be addressed. Tracy Keninger, an I-CASH collaborator from Easter Seals of Iowa and chair of a newly organized task force on this issue, said that this is a problem that is especially relevant in Iowa.

"The average age of farmers in Iowa is 65 years old," she said. "This means we need to heighten awareness among farmers of the risks in farming as they grow older. They need to learn what adjustments they may need to make, such as changes in equipment they use or certain behaviors. They need to learn to appropriately compensate for the natural limitations that anyone gets by aging."

Donham said that several risks in particular are common for older farmers.

"Death from tractor rollovers is two to three times more likely for elderly farmers than for those younger than 50," he said. "Also, depression is common among the elderly anyway, but farmers are at greater risk because of the current economic downturn in agriculture. It is difficult to keep an operation in the black because of decreased commodity prices relative to expenses, and this stress makes depression more likely."

Donham agreed that heightening awareness among farmers of the risks as they grow older is necessary. A way to do this could be to adopt a similar concept developed for reducing injuries in young children, he said. This idea of age-appropriate tasks is used to encourage families to direct children's activities toward tasks they can accomplish safely according to their mental and physical development.

For example, while a 10-year-old on some farms may be allowed to drive the tractor,
I-CASH and other agencies have worked to promote age-appropriate tasks, recommending that children younger than 13 shouldn't function equipment such as the tractor.

According to Donham, this same principle of age-appropriate tasks could be used to encourage elderly farmers to view their abilities realistically. This will help them and their families to distribute jobs on the farm that they are physically and mentally able to do, feel value in doing, and can perform in a safe manner. To make this work, physicians must be involved, he said.

"Doctors must be a part of this effort by making recommendations and evaluating farmers' physical or mental limitations," he said. "They must be aware of the culture on farms, that from the time you are 10 years old to when you are completely disabled, you work. Physicians should recognize this structure and the general tasks that are performed on farms. When doctors make recommendations, elderly farmers may be more likely to listen to them than to their children or other family members telling them they need to slow down or stop working."

The number of elderly farmers in Iowa may be due in part to Iowa's large elderly population in general, Keninger said. Iowa has the highest percentage of people over 85 in the nation and the third highest percentage of people over 70. Many elderly residents are found in rural communities, where health care may not be as easily available.

The philosophy of age-appropriate tasks should also be promoted to protect and maintain these communities, Donham said.

"By developing more of a community philosophy of helping the elderly, many risks and injuries can be averted," he said. "If a farmer or other worker sees that other farmers and members of the community support age-appropriate tasks, they might be more likely to accept the idea."