Community Papers

Coffee With: Reaching out online

Gemma Fletcher co-ordinates an online chronic disease self-management program in Ladner. - Christine Lyon photo
Gemma Fletcher co-ordinates an online chronic disease self-management program in Ladner.
— image credit: Christine Lyon photo

Living in a small town with no family and few friends can be difficult, but for someone with a chronic disease, it can be especially isolating.

With few health resources available, many turn to the Internet to seek support from peers and volunteers hundreds of miles away.

That's where Gemma Fletcher steps in.

The 24-year-old Ladner resident co-ordinates a new online program to help those with chronic illness self-manage their condition.

Last year she joined the Ladner satellite office of the University of Victoria Centre on Aging, a multi-disciplinary research centre.

The non-profit office co-ordinates free workshops across B.C.—funded largely by the Ministry of Health Services—for people with arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lung and heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

At the trained-volunteer-led workshops, participants set goals, share feelings, problem solve and brainstorm ways to manage symptoms.

Thanks to Fletcher, those workshops are now available online 24 hours a day—and they aren't just geared toward those hindered by geography or mobility issues.

"There still is a lot of stigma around having chronic conditions, especially around mental health conditions," Fletcher explained.

She said many users appreciate not having to go out in public, even if they have the ability to do so.
"They never even have to talk to someone on the phone if they're concerned about their anonymity."

It's been just over a week since the first online workshop launched on March 15, but Fletcher says it's already been positively received.

"It's going really well, already people are sharing all sorts of things."

One user from Northern B.C. with fibromyalgia said he wanted to start going for walks, but worried the cold, icy weather would cause him to fall and aggravate his condition.

His online workshop mates suggested he walk in a nearby mall, do YouTube aerobics videos, or stroll in the forest where the ground is less slick.

One of Fletcher's colleagues says the online and face-to-face self-management programs are all about building confidence.

"You get a lot of people who have been put down all their lives . . . sometimes society's attitudes aren't that great," said Mark Davies, senior co-ordinator for self-management programs at the Ladner office.

"People (with chronic conditions) lose their self esteem. They see themselves as different."

The self-management programs encourage participants to reach goals they set for themselves.

"When they achieve that, it's that kind of a eureka moment: 'Wow, I still can do things.'"

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