WRITER: AMY LILLARD
CONTACT: DAVE PEDERSEN
2130 Medical Laboratories
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-8032; fax (319) 335-8034
Release: March 8, 2000
I-CASH warns elderly farmers to recognize risks, learn
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
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
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
"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,
"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."