by Vicki Conte, Program Manager in the Department of Neurology at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin
Meet Dion. Dion attended a six-week Living Well course that I co-facilitated and from the start it was clear that Dion wanted and needed help. During the first 2½ hour meeting, as we did introductions around the group, Dion cried when he described his chronic conditions which included epilepsy, a heart condition, a skin condition, being overweight, and some depression. He is a 20-year-old who lives with his mom and sister and was referred to the class by his epileptologist.
Something happened when he cried. People listened. He was sitting beside a couple who have been married for 64 years. At 86, they know chronic conditions. There was another couple in their late 50s, four single people in late middle age, and one gentleman in his late 40s. Men and women of varying ages with varying diagnoses listened to Dion and, in turn, he listed to them. That camaraderie and support is one of the essentials in the success of Living Well.
Dion never cried again. He sponged up information. He brainstormed. He problem-solved. He set “action plans” each week that were achievable and action-specific. Dion practically jumped out of his seat at the beginning of each class to report on the success of his action plan. He accomplished the following and more:
- Began eating a variety of foods with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.
- He started reading labels paying close attention to portion size.
- He took out his bike for the first time in years and went for a ride with his sister. The next day he did it again and took a route with a hill that required more effort and commitment than he thought he had. He was so proud and had so much fun.
- He planned, practiced, and then had a conversation with a friend that had been teasing and insulting him. He said, “I feel hurt when you say…” He reported that the friend was defensive; but Dion resolved that even if a friendship was lost, he was not going to permit that kind of bullying.
- He planned and practiced his next doctor’s visit, writing his concerns and being prepared to ask questions until he understood what the doctor was saying and the doctor understood what he was saying.
Is it possible to become empowered over the course of six weeks? On his class evaluation, Dion wrote, “This class changed my life. I thought I had no control over my life/my health. I learned that I have all the control.”
Dion acquired tools in the areas of physical activity, decision-making, breathing techniques, using your mind, understanding emotions, communication, weight management, healthy eating, and working with health professionals. The goal was to break the symptom cycle of fatigue, poor sleep, physical limitation, pain, stress/anxiety, difficult emotions, depression, and shortness of breath — common symptoms for most chronic conditions. People in the program learn through their classmates that a 70-year old with Parkinson’s disease has similar symptoms to a 20-year-old with epilepsy and a 50-year-old with multiple sclerosis (MS).
And while Dion seemed to have the most dramatic awakening, everyone took something valuable away from Living Well. Some people saw that, over six weeks, they could increase their exercise schedule and change their eating habits to realize a real difference in weight, breathing, and even lab results. Some people realized that they could break a big goal into small steps to achieve it. Many people really loved the exercise on decision-making. They admitted that they often make knee-jerk decisions and then wonder how they got into the situation they are in. Stepping back and making a pros and cons chart and assigning value to each pro and con can lead to better decisions. While it was totally new to Dion, most people enjoyed reviewing the food groups and the recommendations for dividing up your plate.
Some people needed one topic more than another. Sleep, medication management, and fall prevention are good topics to study whether you currently need the help or not. This class of a dozen people with chronic conditions loved living well. They also seemed to love each other. And there was no doubt that they all loved Dion!