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Health officials offer resources for aging farmers

Farmers are getting older while participating in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.

More than 2 million full-time workers were employed in production agriculture in the U.S. in 2018. In 2017, 416 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury, resulting in a fatality rate of 20.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The average age of all U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Census of Agriculture. That was more than a year older than the average from the previous survey in 2012.

As many farmers continue to live and work on the farm well beyond typical retirement age, Jeff Bender, director for the Upper Midwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center, said a goal of UMASH is to have those involved in agriculture — which as a profession has more older workers than any other profession or industry — to be aware of the impact of aging and ways to prevent injuries.

Awareness of risks

Randy Koller, a dairy farmer in Pepin County, said he has seen the way aging has affected him and his farm.

Koller, 56, said after graduating from high school, his father, who was approaching 65 at the time, told him to be smart with how he was doing things on the farm and to take care of his body.

“Sometimes you need to do more with less,” Koller said during a recent UMASH online community forum about aging on the farm. “You need to do more to be more productive and remain profitable in today’s world. But, as you get older, you can’t do things the hard way to get there.

“You have to be smarter. You have to use technology. You have to ask for help when you need help, so you’re not out there getting injured lifting things, moving things around. There are challenges, but use your experience to do things easier.”

Koller said he is fortunate to live just 20 minutes from Eau Claire, where he has access to several health care facilities. His proximity to the city also means he has access to high-speed internet, but both of those factors can limit access to quality care for those in more rural locations, he said.

“A lot of times farmers take a tough-person approach and say, ‘Well, I can tough my way through this’,” Koller said. “That is not necessarily the answer. Sometimes you need some health care and some screening to make sure things are OK.”

Koller, whose wife, Carma, is a physical therapist, said he has kept himself in shape for farming through running and weight training.

“Just what I naturally do on the farm is not necessarily a good workout in everyday,” Koller said. “Yeah, if I get into a day where I’m throwing hay bales all day, it’s a great workout. Otherwise, you’re just doing repetitive things, walking at a calculated, slow pace. Sometimes some more strenuous physical activity and weight training is a good thing.”

Staying active

Nicholas Beltz, assistant professor in the kinesiology department at UW-Eau Claire and director of a community-fitness program, said physical activity outside of farming is key to slowing the loss of muscle mass associated with aging and retaining the fitness required to continue farming at an older age.

Adults over the age of 65 are the least physically active age group, Beltz said, with about a third of individuals in that age group not getting any exercise outside of their jobs.

“We’re getting older as a population,” Beltz said. “Things need to be adapted as we get older. There are a lot of things that change physiologically as we age.”

While cardiovascular activities like walking and biking are important to overall health, Beltz recommended resistance training to help maintain muscle integrity and overall quality of life during the aging process.

“As we move less, we get loss in muscle mass,” Beltz said. “If you’re not doing things, they’re going to be perceived as taking much more effort when you need to do them.”

Health care accessibility

Joseph E. Gaugler, director at the School of Public Health’s Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota, said roughly 20% of all older Americans, those 65 and older, live in rural areas. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, roughly a third of the aging population lives in rural areas.

Gaugler said persistent health-care provider shortages tend to plague rural areas, with the number of physicians per 10,000 people trending lower in rural areas than in urban areas, and specialty care can often require patients traveling great distances.

“This has been compounded by the fact that many rural hospitals have been closing,” he said. “What has that done overall to accessibility in the care offered and available to older persons and their families in rural areas?

“One solution that is thrown out is telehealth and virtual visits. This is simply not possible if we don’t have a dedicated broadband infrastructure in rural communities.”

Lisa Schiller, an associate professor and nursing graduate programs director at UW-Eau Claire, is a nurse practitioner and has been practicing in rural Wisconsin for 23 years. For almost a decade, Schiller has been taking senior nursing students at UW-Eau Claire to about 18 large dairies in Pepin and Buffalo counties to do health screenings and health and safety education for the farm owners and employees.

Since starting the program, Schiller has seen the average age of the participating farm owners and workers increase to about 30 and older for farm workers and 49 and older for farm owners.

“We know that farmers don’t retire, they just work a little bit less and supervise a little more,” she said.

Chance of injury

Farming as an occupation comes with a high risk of injury, and that risk increases as farmers age, Schiller said. Among farmers younger than 55 in the U.S., the rate of fatal accidents is about 18 to 20 per 100,000. That rate increases to 45 to 55 per 100,000 for farmers 55 and older. The age group at greatest risk of fatal injury is 65 to 84, she said.

“When you think about this and the average age of workers in other industries, they’re not working at 65 to 84,” Schiller said. “But farmers still are.”

Schiller said many factors can play a role in the increasing risk of injury as farmers age, citing increasing prescription drug use, depression, hearing loss, osteoarthritis or respiratory problems.

“Farmers’ self-perceived risk does not equal their actual risk,” Schiller said. “I’m sure everybody’s heard the near-miss story. It always ended, ‘well, farming’s risky.’ There’s just an acceptance of risk. We need to be aware of that.”

AP centerpiece
Father's Day marked at a distance

CHICAGO — Wake Sharp got to see his family on Father’s Day — see them, not hug them, not kiss them, not even shake hands.

Because of the terrible toll taken by the coronavirus on older people in nursing homes and other institutions, the 93-year-old Navy veteran and his loved ones had to stay on opposite sides of a plexiglass barrier and talk by phone at the assisted-living home outside San Francisco where he is a resident.

“It’s better than nothing!” he said. “I really enjoy it.”

Dads at nursing homes across the country marked Father’s Day at a forced distance from their families Sunday. Some families relied on video calls; others used social media to send their wishes.

The virus has made in-person visits with elderly and high-risk family members difficult and sometimes impossible in recent months, though parts of the country have begun loosening up. Maryland and Illinois were among states that allowed outdoor visits at nursing homes with masks and six feet of distance.

Frank Wolff, his wife and their son visited his 91-year-old father on a patio outside his Chicago assisted-living home on Father’s Day. The staff took everyone’s temperature and followed all other regulations.

“It was good to see him and get a feeling for how he’s really doing,” said Wolff, who hadn’t seen his father, Howard Wolff, since Illinois shut down in mid-March.

Sharp got to see his family through a plexiglass cubicle built by a staff member for Rockville Terrace, the home in Fairfield, California, where Sharp lives.

Four generations of the Sharp family gathered in a courtyard. The eldest among them, arriving with the help of his walker, took a seat inside the three-sided box with phone in hand, talking with family members on the outside on one of their phones.

“We hug each other through the glass,” said Sharp, who hasn’t had a real hug from them in a long while.

This wasn’t the first time they visited that way.

“I don’t know who enjoys it more. My family and I – or Dad,” said son Dan Sharp, who lives in Novato, California. He paused, then added, “Probably Dad.”

Rockville Terrace also had a car parade with families with signs for Father’s Day and a barbecue so the dads could have steaks and burgers.

The coronavirus has killed an estimated 120,000 people nationwide. As of mid-June, more than 45,500 residents and staff had died from outbreaks at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to a running count by The Associated Press. That was about 40% of the total deaths from the scourge at the time.

Nursing homes have been among the last places to loosen restrictions. Families and nursing home officials worry about the effects the isolation is having on residents’ mental health.

While video calls have helped, Rockville Terrace’s plexiglass cubicle — which creator Jason Reyes jokingly calls the “Sneezeguard 3000” — is another possible solution. It was introduced in April.

“It’s not back to normal … but it helps,” said Reyes, a managing partner of Carlson Management, a company with seven facilities in California. He said he was driven to build the 128-square-foot enclosures after so many residents and family members were distraught when they couldn’t see one another.

“The whole situation just tugged on the heartstrings,” Reyes said, noting that demand for cubicle visits — each resident’s session with family lasting an hour on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends — has been strong at the three facilities where they have them.

Throughout Father’s Day on social media, children posted photos and messages about the dads they couldn’t see.

“Happy Father’s Day Pa! I hate that I can’t be there today,” Kelly Cooper, who lives in Bedfordshire, England, wrote on Instagram, alongside photos of her and her dad, David Cooper, who’s 73 and considered high risk. He lives on his own in London.

Cooper said her own disabling health problems also have limited her travel.

“As soon as this virus calms the hell down and it’s safe to visit, then I’ll be there. xxxx Love you to the moon and back Pa xxxx,” she wrote.

Wolff in Chicago said his own father was happy to see him but took his mask off and was particularly frustrated that he couldn’t hug his grandson. He is also hard of hearing and so has become a fan of talking on a big screen that has been set up so residents can make video calls.

“Just do the FaceTime,” Howard Wolff told his son. “It’s easier.”

So his son said they will continue to do both types of visits. “Yeah, so we can’t hug. But he’s safe,” Frank Wolff said. “All in all, it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Trump rally highlights vulnerabilities heading into election

NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s return to the campaign trail was designed to show strength and enthusiasm heading into the critical final months before an election that will decide whether he remains in the White House.

Instead, his weekend rally in Oklahoma highlighted growing vulnerabilities and crystallized a divisive reelection message that largely ignores broad swaths of voters — independents, suburban women and people of color — who could play a crucial role in choosing Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

The lower-than-expected turnout at the comeback rally, in particular, left Trump fuming.

“There’s really only one strategy left for him, and that is to propel that rage and anger and try to split the society and see if he can have a tribal leadership win here,” former Trump adviser-turned-critic Anthony Scaramucci said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

The president did not offer even a token reference to national unity in remarks that spanned more than an hour and 40 minutes at his self-described campaign relaunch as the nation grappled with surging coronavirus infections, the worst unemployment since the Great Depression and sweeping civil unrest.

Nor did Trump mention George Floyd, the African American man whose death at the hands of Minnesota police late last month sparked a national uprising over police brutality. But he did add new fuel to the nation’s culture wars, defending Confederate statues while making racist references to the coronavirus, which originated in China and which he called “kung flu.” He also said Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who came to the U.S. as a refugee, “would like to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came, Somalia.”

Trump won the presidency in 2016 with a similar red-meat message aimed largely at energizing conservatives and white working-class men. But less than four months before early voting begins in some states, there are signs that independents and educated voters — particularly suburban women — have turned against him. Republican strategists increasingly believe that only a dramatic turnaround in the economy can revive his reelection aspirations.

“It’s bad,” said Republican operative Rick Tyler, a frequent Trump critic. “There’s literally nothing to run on. The only thing he can say is that Biden is worse.”

But the day after Trump’s Tulsa rally, the president’s message was almost an afterthought as aides tried to explain away a smaller-than-expected crowd that left the president outraged.

The campaign had been betting big on Tulsa.

Trump’s political team spent days proclaiming that more than 1 million people had requested tickets. They also ignored health warnings from the White House coronavirus task force and Oklahoma officials, eager to host an event that would help him move past the civil rights protests and the coronavirus itself.

His first rally in 110 days was meant to be a defiant display of political force to help energize Trump’s spirits, try out some attacks on Biden and serve as a powerful symbol of American’s re-opening.

Instead, the city fire marshal’s office reported a crowd of just less than 6,200 in the 19,000-seat BOK Center, and at least six staff members who helped set up the event tested positive for the coronavirus. The vast majority of the attendees, including Trump, did not wear face masks as recommended by the Trump administration’s health experts.

After the rally, the president berated aides over the turnout. He fumed that he had been led to believe he would see huge crowds in deep-red Oklahoma, according to two White House and campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

There was no sign of an imminent staff shakeup, but members of Trump’s inner circle angrily questioned how campaign manager Brad Parscale and other senior aides could so wildly overpromise and underdeliver, according to the officials.

Publicly, Trump’s team scrambled to blame the crowd size on media coverage and protesters outside the venue, but the small crowds of pre-rally demonstrators were largely peaceful. Tulsa police reported just one arrest Saturday afternoon.

It’s unclear when Trump will hold his next rally.

Before Oklahoma, the campaign had planned to finalize and announce its next rally this week. Trump is already scheduled to make appearances Tuesday in Arizona and Thursday in Wisconsin. Both are major general election battlegrounds.

At least one swing state governor, meanwhile, says Trump would not be welcome to host a rally in her state amid the pandemic.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said she “would think very seriously about” trying to block Trump from hosting a rally there if he wanted to.

“We know that congregating without masks, especially at an indoor facility, is the worst thing to do in the midst of a global pandemic,” Whitmer said in an interview before the Oklahoma event, conceding that she wasn’t aware of the specific legal tools she had available to block a prospective Trump rally. “I just know we have limitations on the number of people that can gather and that we’re taking this seriously.”

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, seized on a fresh opportunity to poke at the incumbent president, suggesting that Trump “was already in a tailspin” because of his mismanagement of the pandemic and civil rights protests.

“Donald Trump has abdicated leadership and it is no surprise that his supporters have responded by abandoning him,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said.


Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.