Below is the transcript for the video presentation from Beth Hunter on Aging Farmers as presented at the 2021 Assistive Technology Summer Institute.

Hi everybody, I’m so sorry I’m not able to join you today in person but I’m very happy to have the opportunity to talk a little bit about the area of aging farmers.

I’m Beth Hunter. I’m at UK in the Graduate Center for Gerontology, and I have a background in Occupational Therapy, just so you understand the point of view, I’m coming from. I know you’ve got a panel of interesting people who are going to chat and maybe some of the information I share right now gives us a little bit of a starting point.

So, a few main points that I want to address and that is number one, we’re aging. If we’re lucky, we will continue aging, but there are things that happen.

With age comes changes. They can be typical or atypical. We’ll talk about that. When we talk about agricultural culture, Farmers really don’t retire. You’ve got to think about how they can stay productive and safe in doing what they do with change in function and there’s a lot of ways to do that, so we’re going to talk about some of the things that could be adapted, et cetera.

Just an overview, the average age of retirement in America for farmers is 75. Typically, that probably means that they’re backing off on some of their work, perhaps another family member is stepping up and taking over, but most likely they are not stopping completely.

Average age of the American farmer is 58 and that is something that’s going up every year. And agriculture is one of the top 3 industries that actually employ people 60 and over, probably because they tend to be self-employed. There are common health issues that happen with age and certainly happen with farmers, things like arthritis, high blood pressure, vision problems, hearing problems, and back problems.

As we’ve said, there are some typical changes and there are atypical changes but not uncommon. So typical changes… You’re going to have change, everyone will have change, in vision, hearing, the senses, balance, reaction time, strength, flexibility…

So, that happens to everybody. But on top of that, there’s these chronic conditions that are very common in the United States.

So high blood pressure, lung disease, heart disease, arthritis pain, diabetes, things like that that are going to combine with typical changes and could potentially influence functional levels.

So there are ways to manage change over time. It’s going to happen, our abilities change, so… You can change the person which might be health behaviors, getting therapy like physical therapy or something like that.
You can change the activity so you look at the work or the task.

Can we make it more efficient? Easier?

You can change the environment so adaptive or assistive technology or devices. And probably, you’re going to want to do a little bit of all of that.

You’ve got to take care of yourself. Some of us are better at this than others, but having regular checkups, including your vision because it’s going to change probably throughout your life.

Getting rest, drinking fluids, particularly water, staying hydrated, trying to maintain a healthy weight, and eating healthy food, not smoking.

Exercise. So, you know, it’s kind of counter intuitive… you tend to live a very physical lifestyle, but are you getting the cardiovascular exercise you need?

Have the appropriate equipment. We’re back to, you know, protective clothing. Whether you’re protecting your eyes, your ears, your skin, your knees, breathing… just having the appropriate safety equipment.

Stretching, you know. Be sure that you take breaks. Repetitive motion is one of the worst things in terms of both arthritis and carpal tunnel overuse. So if you’re doing something over long periods of time, take time to stretch. Stretch your hands, stretch your wrists, stretch your shoulders, your back, your knees, whatever. Take a break and stretch.
Try to be very careful with your ergonomics. This is one of the reasons that doing things when you’re tired is not a good idea… because we all have bad habits anyway, but when you get tired, it’s hard to do things in the proper position.

So how you lift things. The bending over, being careful not to, trying to squat. Keeping things in close to your body versus holding them out. No twisting. DO NOT twist, particularly when you’re carrying anything. Pushing rather than pulling. So, good ergonomic ideas.

Ask for help. It may be something that you’ve always done yourself, but maybe at some point you ask for someone’s help.

Be efficient. And, know your limits and respect them. Know that those are going to change regularly. It’s going to change if you’re feeling under the weather. It’s going to change if you are having arthritis that’s developing. You just have to know your limits.

So, one thing might be changing your workflow. It could be that, if you know you’re going to do something that has hazards, climbing up and down a ladder, let’s do that during daylight hours with good lighting. Or if you know that you get fatigued over the day, and more injuries occur when someone gets tired, whether it’s mentally, physically, or both, It may be that you want to get your strenuous and/or dangerous activities done Early, before you get tired, versus waiting to the end of the day. Maybe it’s that you take arthritis medicine and it takes you a few hours for that to kick in, and so you’re going to prioritize to do those things later.

So it’s just really thinking about what your needs are. And it’s common sense, but sometimes we get stuck in habits and routines that don’t change with our needs. Another one is maybe you’re going to alternate physical with nonphysical jobs so you have a time to recover for a little while.

Be efficient and combine similar tasks. Try not to do things out of order where you’re doing more walking than you need to do, for example.

You can adapt your environment to have multi-height shelving and storage and workbenches so you can sit when you do some work or you don’t have to reach high for heavy tools, for example.

Visual labeling, keeping things in a really organized manner so you don’t have to go searching around, sticking your hand into a tool chest, etc.; that you can see what you have, where it is, and you can access it easily. So it’s just a matter of recognizing the risk and then taking steps to manage it.

So there’s things that can be done. Some are just common sense. You know, being sure that you have good lighting in your work environment. Some can be put on sensors, so when you walk in, the barn lights go on versus having to mess around in the dark trying to find lights or looking for the string from the bulb kind of thing.

So I mean you can get high tech for a lot of these things, but just being aware and being sure that you have the basic lighting needed to work safely in an environment.

Be sure your steps and stairs are safe. Your ladders. Be sure there are hand rails and non-slip surfaces. That includes, perhaps, on tractor steps. Your gates. Easily accessible and workable latches and locks are important. There are a lot of electronic gate controls these days, again getting in to more high tech. There’s lots of different animal handling equipment.

Animal handling is one of the most risky parts of farming and is actually one of the first things that older farmers tend to give up. Either they’ll switch their farming or they will hire people or have family that takes over the animal parts, but there’s lots of equipment that can make it safer and make it easier, like automated feeding equipment.

Using hearing protection. Making sure your grandchildren are using hearing protection, that really needs to start early, but you need to protect your hearing as much as possible.

And be aware if you’re taking over the counter medications or prescription medications, what are the side effects? Is there going to be something that’s making you groggy? Is it going to make you dizzy? Those kind of things.

Again, nothing is saying that means don’t do something, it just means be aware of what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, and maybe think of new ways of doing things.

Maybe you want to change the tools you use. So, instead of hauling pails, which you did for years and years, maybe you want to get a utility cart, something that’s easier to push or pull versus holding things with your hands. We’re talking arthritis now. We’re talking muscle weakness. Or using tools so that you can collect all your tools and carry them with you versus having to go back and forth to barn to get things, etc. Instead of walking everywhere or getting up and down into a big pickup truck for example, you maybe want to use an ATV, something that’s easier to get in and out of, but that you can use on all different terrain.

Back to arthritis and some strength issues, maybe you want to get hand tools that have built up handles. Or you can build them up yourself; if you go online, there’s tons of ways to easily build up handles so it’s easier to grip, but there’s also lots of products out there on the on the market that already exist. Flooring. Non slip flooring is really important.
Removing hazards, keeping things neat and tidy, keeping your walkways clear. If you are required to stand for long periods you might consider investing in anti-fatigue mats.

So there’s lots of assistive technology out there, again from low tech to very high tech. AgrAbility is a program that’s nationwide. They’ve got a website that’s full of information, so there’s this website where they’ve got a listing. these are the headings under there, of all different types of adaptive equipment. There’s lots of different adaptive equipment under each of these, so if you look at fencing you would find tons of different types of fencing. Gates, different latches, different equipment, home modifications, so they’ve got a lot of things. Outdoor recreation… They have examples.
It’s a great place to start. You’re going to get probably more than you want to know.

Some examples. So we’ve got a, the red tractor has got an actual chair lift, so you would be able to, the chair would come down, you can sit in It, and it will take you up to enter the tractor, The green is a standing lift… so it may be that it just gets you up, either to the step or maybe it gets you all the way up to the seat.

Here’s an example of a high tech, wonderful, comfortable, ergonomic and great suspension seat you might add to a tractor. There is the all terrain vehicle that can be used and is much easier to get in and out of than a big pickup truck or your tractor to get around a property. There are people that are putting GPS into their tractors, depending on what the needs are. Or cameras, these backup cameras, so that you can see what’s behind you. That is a real danger. Think about a grandchild running around behind your tractor! So being able to see what’s behind you is pretty crucial.

Then you can get these, you know, there are new tractors that are just luxury vehicles and they’ve got the whole heating, air conditioning, even air cleaning which helps a lot with breathing and temperature control. It could be that instead of sliding over a seat, if your seat turned… It’s just so that you could turn your seat and twist versus sliding.
If you don’t need the full on camera behind get bigger rearview mirrors. So, in the top left, it’s just a very long mirror. The middle one, if you’re on this huge equipment, you may want your mirrors way out to the side so that you can really see.

Different types of gates. Automatic. Push gates. Cattle gates where you, maybe you don’t need a gate. That happens to be an example of a solar gate. Then little things like these, the ergonomic carts that might be a lot easier than carrying things by hand. The middle picture there is looking at putting in non-slip surfaces onto flooring. And the far right bottom is an example of how someone has organized their tools where they can see it, they can reach it and it just makes life a lot easier.

So I mean, the sky’s the limit with adaptive equipment. So, the, you know, the bottom line, take home point of all of this is… Older farmers are going to farm. It’s a lifestyle versus a job, and nowadays we’ve got a lot of older adults
that maybe weren’t farmers or grew up on a farm and maybe stopped, that develop hobby farms or things as they get older, so they’re doing it for fun and for the love of it. But they still are facing a lot of the same Safety issues and need to think about the best way to do things.

So all we’re looking at here is how to be safe and efficient and to support you to do what you want to do regardless of what’s going on with your body, your farm, the weather, who knows.

You have to take care of yourself. You know, I showed you a couple of adaptive examples, but there is so much adaptive equipment, some for fun, some for work, some that’s low tech, some that’s very high tech, some that’s inexpensive, some that’s very expensive. So I mean, the sky’s the limit, as I said. But you need to be safe. You need to not overdo it. You need to be aware and to try and make your environment as supportive as possible and adapt what you do and how you do it as your ability changes ’cause it’s going to.

And if you want to do this, and as a lifelong activity, you have to be aware of that. So, I’m hoping at least some of this is a good jumping off point for some of the people who are going to talk following this and I really appreciate the
opportunity to share these ideas.

Thank you.