Wellness Empowers

If a team of cheerleaders, a dietician and a coach followed you around the grocery store, would you pick the spinach or the ice cream?

For the folks involved in Jewish Family Service’s Wellness Empowers Program, having an entourage in their corner is making a difference – in their choices and in their pant sizes.

The year-long program kicked off in January and is already showing results. Many of the program’s 100 participants are losing weight, lowering their blood sugar and, most importantly, making choices that may help them live longer and happier lives, said JFS Wellness Empowers coordinator, Amy Singer.

Making an impact

“We are definitely making a difference in the community,” Singer said. The pilot program, funded by Novo Nordisk to empower people with Type 2 Diabetes, targets low-income people in the tri-county area, and provides free coaching, guidance and education on diet and exercise. “Everyone is assigned a health coach and peer group,” Singer said. “Some work with personal trainers.”

“Most low-income individuals wouldn’t have the opportunity to work with this caliber of experts at this level if it weren’t for the generous grant,” Singer said.

Groups in the Wellness Empowers program include participants representing all ages, cultures and faiths. They meet at the Gary Bernstein Clinic in Pontiac, Ferncare Clinic in Ferndale, Covenant Community Care in Royal Oak, Jewish Senior Life facilities and other community venues. Activities include food journaling, consulting cookbooks, using pedometers, food label instruction, cooking demos and more.

Gregg Smaltz, a 56-year-old participant from Southfield, found information on portion size, reading food labels and the importance of daily exercise particularly helpful. “I have lost 25 pounds,” says Smaltz, who has had diabetes for 25 years. “I am feeling better and have more energy.”

“Lifestyle choices are an enormous part of the health equation, but physicians are often hard-pressed to address those issues in the limited time and interaction they have with patients,” observes cardiologist Joel Kahn, a clinical professor of medicine at Wayne State University’s medical school.

Kahn talked to Wellness Empowers participants about food choices and lifestyle. “It’s estimated that more than half of all cases of diabetes, heart disease and cancer are caused by poor lifestyle and can even be reversed,” Kahn says. “If you can take the time for a few hours of lectures and demos on lifestyle, that can be more influential than the most powerful medicines we have.”

Currently, numbers of people with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are rising, with trends disturbingly showing that more, and younger, people have the disease or are at risk for it.

According to the National Diabetes Fact Sheet 2011 published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 25.8 million children and adults in the United States—8.3% of the population—have diabetes. Another 79 million people are on the verge with “pre-diabetes.” Diabetes contributes to heart and kidney disease, stroke, neural disorders, blindness and amputations. The disease cost Americans $245 million in 2012, and average medical expenditures among people with diabetes were 2.3 times higher than those without.

Getting to the meat of the problem

Programs like Wellness Empowers get to “the meat of the problem,” Kahn says. Helping people change their lifestyle in manageable – and affordable – ways is the key to turning around their health and prolonging lives. “Most people want to be healthy,” Singer says.  “They just don’t know where to begin. Getting healthy doesn’t require a giant leap, but rather a series of tiny steps that start with education.”

“A lot of people didn’t know what a ‘carbohydrate’ was before they started with us,” Singer says. “Or they never realized that drinking several cans of pop a day isn’t good for you. There’s a lot we do in our daily lives that seems normal to us until someone shows you otherwise.”

Conversely, there is a lot of misinformation out there about what it means to be “healthy.”  Since she was diagnosed with diabetes in 1998, Nancy Gerendasy knew she could be eating better – but for some reason, she just wasn’t. When she started the Wellness Empowers program, she admits her sugar levels were crazily high – 245! What made the difference for the 65-year-old participant is the education – learning to read labels to make more discerning food choices.

“I was floundering in learning how to be diabetic, even though I’ve been diabetic since 1998,” says Gerendasy.  “[In Wellness Empowers program], I met people in the same boat that I am.  It has helped. When I started, my blood sugar numbers were high, way over 200, now they are much better. My medication was changed and last Monday my number was 125. I am going to make sure that my numbers are good.”

What made the difference? “Knowing that I have to tell somebody once or twice a month what my numbers are,” she says. Also, “reading the labels of everything [has helped] and knowing what total carbs are. Sugar is part of the carbohydrates. I look at total carbs and see what the numbers are and if I can eat it or not. I look at calories and fat grams. If it’s too high, I walk right by.”

“People think that in order to be healthy, you have to be wealthy,” Singer notes. Singer took her group to Meijer’s on a field trip and many people were surprised at what they could afford on a limited budget. Grocery store personnel incorporated lessons on using WIC coupons and Bridge cards to buy healthy foods,” she said.

The hope is that, after a year, the good habits learned will last a lifetime.

“It’s very rewarding to watch clients make healthy choices and lead healthier lives,” Singer said.

Posted by Lynne Meredith Golodner, Public Relations consultant for Jewish Family Service and the launch of of Wellness Empowers.