Aging Well: Tackling the mountain, feeling better in the process

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Healthier Living Colorado, a free workshop aimed at helping individuals better cope with chronic conditions, will be from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Sept. 23 through Oct. 28 at the Visiting Nurse Association in Craig.

The workshop is open to anyone with chronic conditions, as well as those who support and care for them. To register for the Craig workshop or learn about scheduled workshops in Routt and Moffat counties, call 871-7676.

Willpower, motivation, positive thinking, planning - these challenges can trip up anyone trying to make better health choices.

What may be small hurdles for some can turn into seemingly insurmountable mountains for individuals coping with chronic conditions and daily symptoms such as pain, fatigue and depression.

As overwhelming as this can be, there are tools to help people overcome defeating thoughts and anxiety to make positive choices that, ultimately, will give them back the self-confidence they need to control the quality of their lives.

Healthier Living Colorado is a program based on a model of chronic disease self-management developed by Stanford University.

The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association is helping administer the program throughout the Western Slope, including communities close to home.

The free six-week workshop has been held periodically throughout Routt and Moffat counties. The next workshop will be in Craig beginning Sept. 23.

Healthier Living has been shown to reduce hospital and outpatient visits among participants and improve their exercise levels, among other benefits.

What speaks more powerfully, however, is the experience of individuals such as Kathy Shea, who found the class so inspiring and helpful that she decided to be trained as an instructor.

"It really opened my eyes to the possibility of change and really taking charge and making things better for me," said Shea, who will be leading the upcoming class in Craig.

Chronic conditions include many ailments and diseases that cannot be cured or never completely go away. Participants in past classes have ranged in age from 40 to 89 and grappled with issues such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, heart problems, cancer, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and back pain.

At least 80 percent of older Americans live with at least one chronic condition, and about half have at least two chronic conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a recent public health report, Acting Surgeon General Steven Galson highlights the importance of community-based self-management programs in providing individuals the knowledge and confidence to take an active role in managing their chronic conditions.

"Many of the nation's leading health care experts are recommending a combination of clinical and community-based interventions to address the growing prevalence of chronic conditions," notes the report, "Self-Management Programs: One Way to Promote Healthy Aging."

Healthier Living Colorado, which includes a workbook for reference, is driven by group discussion and participation. Within this setting, participants learn about self-management practices such as exercise, relaxation, healthy eating and effective communication and how to implement the tools into their lives.

Shea, who copes with rheumatoid arthritis, has found peer support in the class particularly helpful.

"It's cathartic to be in a group of people with similar circumstances," she said. "The empathy that comes out after everyone is settled and comfortable is pretty significant."

A key component of the program is setting goals and following through with those goals with an action plan. Participants revisit their plans sharing successes and challenges with others in the class. Each person also has a "buddy" who checks in with them between classes to see how they are progressing.

Problem solving encourages participants to understand why they weren't able to follow through with a plan, such as recognizing things that trigger them to do unhealthy things, rather than dwell in failure.

"Part of the class is working with your good days and bad days and understanding you can be more informed, and you can participate in the world around you," Shea said. "You can always learn to make your space and outlook better."

The class helps participants take down the mental mountains that make healthy choices seem hard or unattainable.

Exercise, for example, does not have to be rigorous or painful.

It can be gentle, soothing and even enjoyable. The program helps open participants' eyes to community resources such as the VNA's Aging Well program, which provides Tai Chi, balance, water fitness and other classes geared toward a wide variety of fitness levels and goals.

Other programs, such as Wellness Wednesdays in Craig and Wellness Days in Hayden -full days of healthy aging activities each week - provide important health and social outlets for older adults and individuals with chronic conditions who may be prone to isolation and depression.

"You can focus on being mopey or stuck, or you can go out there and be engaged and go for it : and not be stuck in a cycle that is not good for you," Shea said.

- Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at tmanzanares@nwcovna.org or 871-7606. Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and better. For more information or to view past articles, log onto www.agingwelltoday.com.

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