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By Ana Karchmer, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) program coordinator at the Executive Office of Elder Affairs

I recently had the privilege of co-facilitating the “Mi Vida, Mi Salud” program, a Spanish language initiative to help seniors with chronic conditions take control of managing their illnesses, along with Edwin Morales, site coordinator for the Foster Grandparents Program at Action for Boston’s Community Development (ABCD). The six-week program, held in Boston, has been culturally adapted to the Latino population and includes tips on healthy eating and exercise. ”Mi Vida” also helps participants formulate action plans, brainstorm and problem solve as part of their health maintenance.

Workshop participants in “Mi Vida” are Spanish-speaking foster grandparents who volunteer in the Boston public schools. The group – 16 women and one man from several different Latin American countries – met every Friday morning for six weeks. Ranging in age from 57 to 89, participants live alone and suffer from at least one chronic illness. Many suffer from two or more illnesses, including: diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, lung disease, osteoporosis and depression.

Two peer leaders (one of whom has a chronic illness herself) facilitated the workshops that comprise the “Mi Vida” program. After the second week, participants report back to the group about their action plans and collaborate to formulate new plans. The action plans are based on something each person wants to change about his/her lifestyle and health.

One of the workshops focused on diet and nutrition. As they learned more about guidelines for healthy eating, their individual action plans focused more on improving their diets. Some wanted to limit the amount of rice or tortillas they ate; others wanted to eat fewer sweets; and others wanted to try to eat breakfast. One participant, who never ate breakfast, found it challenging to follow her action plan of eating breakfast a few mornings per week. Other members of the group offered strategies for eating in the morning, giving their fellow participant some dining options.  After selecting one of the group’s ideas, the participant reported that after six weeks, she was in the habit of eating a small breakfast every day.

In the sixth and final session of “Mi Vida,” all participants shared their successes.  One had started to eat salads regularly; another better understood the concept of portions and how to limit intake of carbohydrates. A few began reading food labels and learned to check the sodium content of the foods they eat.

The educational impact of “Mi Vida” was readily apparent when one participant, Maria*, discovered how much sodium was in the packaged noodle soups she ate every day – the look on her face was priceless! Another member of the group, Lucy*, commented that she had previously taken a nutrition class, but she now understood how to put together a menu following the formula for healthy eating presented in the program. A participant reported that she felt proud that she had kept to her weekly action plans.  And an initially reticent participant slowly warmed up to the group and gradually began to share reports with the others.

As co-facilitators, Edwin and I were likewise responsible for forming action plans and reported on them to the group. One week, for example, I decided to cut back on my coffee intake — to one cup per day. Every afternoon I came home and prepared myself a cup of tea instead, thinking about the “abuelitas” (grandmothers) in the group and how they were helping me keep my goal.

Although a couple of program participants knew each other well, most knew each other only from participating in the program’s mandatory meetings. They all arrived at the first session anxious to learn but not sure what to expect. After the first couple of sessions, the group participants began opening up and supporting one another.  Although many had hard lives, they came to each session with a smile, a hug and a willingness to work and learn something new that would improve their health.

As part of the program, participants also talked about the impact of APCD’s Foster Grandparents Program on their lives. Many noted that the program gave them a reason to wake up in the morning because they “loved their foster grandchildren.”

“Mi Vida, Mi Salud” or “My Life, My Health” is the Stanford University Chronic Disease Self Management Program and is available in Spanish, English, Chinese and Portuguese. The program is supported by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant and through collaboration between the Department of Public Health and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. The program is being offered at various community sites such as public libraries, community health centers, senior centers, hospitals and at Councils on Aging (COAs).

For more information about “Mi Vida,” contact Ana Karchmer – at the Executive Office of Elder Affairs (ana.karchmer@state.ma.us).

 *participant names have been changed

 Ana Karchmer is American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) program coordinator at the Executive Office of Elder Affairs

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