Aging Well: Taking chronic illness by the horns |

Aging Well: Taking chronic illness by the horns

Free six-session class helps participants set goals, alleviate symptoms


Managing pain and fatigue is an everyday reality for Patsy Magness, who has multiple sclerosis. It helps to attend support groups and health seminars, where she finds comfort in camaraderie with others with similar problems.

“If you’re not visiting with your peers, all of a sudden, you start to get depressed and think you’re the only person with these problems,” she said.

Magness is looking forward to sharing in others’ experiences while learning how to live healthier and minimize symptoms of her condition during the upcoming Healthy Living with Chronic Diseases workshop in Craig.

The free, six-session class helps people such as Magness replace negativity, anxiety, depression and feelings of powerlessness related to their illness with goal-setting and problem-solving skills aimed at improving their quality of life.

Patsy’s husband, Ray, also will participate in the class to learn more about what Patsy is feeling and how to be of further support.

“If everyone took this class, I think we’d have a much more healthy society with more positive attitudes and empowerment,” said Diana Eilers, who leads the workshop with Jeanne Upbin.

The workshop, offered by the VNA’s Aging Well program, will be held Wednesday evenings beginning Sept. 12 at the American Legion in Craig. The workshop also has been offered in Oak Creek and Steamboat Springs.

Chronic conditions include many ailments and diseases that cannot be cured or that 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, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, arthritis and back pain.

Other examples of chronic illnesses include lupus, Crohn’s disease, long-term depression, obesity and phobias – such as a fear of heights or of leaving one’s home – anything that prevents someone from living the life they want, Eilers said.

A key component of the class is setting goals and following through 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.

“Once they see they can accomplish something small, they get more courage,” Eilers said. “I think it’s about taking small steps.”

Eilers and Upbin also focus on ways participants can distract themselves from pain and other symptoms and how to prevent negative attitudes from pushing them into a downward spiral. Guided imagery and other techniques help them learn to relax and concentrate more on their goals.

“This class gives really strong tools and choices for them to make,” Eilers said. “Many of them never thought they had a choice, so it makes them feel empowered.”

Sharon and Michael Lausin attended the Steamboat workshop in May to learn more about managing Sharon’s extreme fatigue and depression related to MS.

The summer heat exacerbates her symptoms, making it difficult for her to follow through with exercise and other goals. However, her improved attitude since the class has helped her take bad days in stride and focus on small successes.

“Mentally, my thinking has changed. : I’m more positive about my issues instead of just saying ‘poor me,'” said Sharon, who plans to attend the Craig course to get back on track with her action plans.

The Steamboat class also helped the Lausins by opening up communication lines.

“We talk about what’s wrong with me more : he understands I need to talk about it,” Sharon said.

Jean Coen, who participated in the Steamboat class with her husband, Wayne, was impressed by the amount of attention Eilers and Upbin gave to understanding the caregiver’s point of view.

“Sometimes you don’t think the person trying to make things OK for you is having difficulties, too,” she said.

Caregivers not only have the opportunity to share with others in their position, they also learn ways to cope with their own chronic health issues, which likely are present if not as severe as their partners’, Eilers said.

Every day presents new challenges for people with chronic illnesses and their caregivers. Some days are better than others, but having the tools to proactively manage one’s health is a good start to living better.

“After you’ve taken the class, you have that as a resource,” Coen said. “You can always get back on the horse.”

Aging Well coordinators hope to continue offering the Healthy Living class on a revolving schedule in Craig, Maybell, Steamboat, Hayden, Oak Creek and Yampa. However, more instructors are needed to teach in those areas.

A training to certify workshop facilitators will be offered Nov. 6 through Nov. 9 at Colorado Mountain College. Anyone who has experience coping with or caring for someone with a chronic condition and is interested in leading the Healthy Living class should call the Aging Well Line at 871-7676.

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