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Managing Chronic Illness

Workshops pair health care professionals with people who speak from their own experience

Virginia manage chronic health

Colleen Turner, coordinator for You Can! Live Well, Virginia!, and Will Clayton, a volunteer, lead a workshop in the six-week program that helps people learn how to manage their chronic illness. — Photo by Matt Roth

Will Clayton knows all too well the physical and psychological toll of a chronic disease.

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy three decades ago, Clayton, 58, of Fairfax, retired on disability eight years ago and uses a wheelchair scooter and a specially equipped van.

See also:  Lack of care coordination leads to medical errors.

"I still have depression states from time to time," said Clayton, who also has diabetes. But he no longer sees himself as mostly reacting to his problems. He feels proactive, often starting sentences with, "As a self-manager, I … " And he has learned how to handle the bleak periods.

For his sense of empowerment, Clayton credits You Can! Live Well, Virginia! The six-week workshops give people the information and tools they need not to just deal with chronic conditions, but to thrive in spite of them.

For example: Someone who has trouble remembering whether she's taken her medication learns to keep them on one shelf before she takes the day's dosage and to move them to a different shelf afterward. Someone who feels depressed learns to recognize negative thoughts and to substitute positive ones. "I can't do anything" becomes "I may not be able to do everything I used to do, but there are still lots of things I can do." Someone suffering stress learns to practice deep breathing and meditation.

"The class teaches you that there are more things you can do," Clayton said.

Clayton felt isolated before, but he learned by taking the workshop that others are in the same boat. He had dreamed earlier in life of teaching but thought his health conditions had closed the door. Leading the workshop has given him a sense of renewed possibilities and lifted his mood, he said.

Developed by Stanford University's School of Medicine as the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, the workshops are offered in nearly every state, usually free, in many foreign countries and online. Generally run by state departments of aging, the workshops go by various names, including Living Well With Chronic Conditions, Healthier Living, Living Healthy, and Help Yourself to Health. Stanford's Patient Education website lists organizations licensed to offer the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, state-by-state.

In 2 1/2-hour live sessions once a week, participants learn to:

  • Handle fatigue, stress, depression and isolation.
  • Communicate effectively with family, friends and health care providers.

A pair of facilitators leads each workshop — usually a trained health professional and a layperson who can speak from experience about chronic disease. The pairing makes all the difference, participants and leaders say.

Next: Not just another support group. >>

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