Local communities learn to take their own pulse

Updated 2016-11-21 12:05:45 Shanghai Daily

Were it not for the persistent nagging of his wife, 71-year-old Yao Xiandi said he wouldn't have given up his 42-year smoking habit, even after exams showed him suffering from high blood pressure.

His wife Cheng Meizhen, 65, took on the role of householder crusader after she joined a "health self-management group" in the Luyi community in the Changning District in 2009.

The group, mostly comprising people in their 50s, holds regular meetings, inviting doctors to speak to them, sharing healthy recipes and participating in recreational sports activities.

"Instead of spending 300 yuan () on cigarettes every month, we now use the money to buy milk and fresh fruit," Cheng told Shanghai Daily.

The Luyi community is one of 6,000 in Shanghai with "health self-management groups," which evolved from communities of patients with chronic ailments like diabetes getting together to explore healthier lifestyles.

The grassroots program, supported now by government, benefits 420,000 participating members, who consider themselves "health ambassadors" in outreach services to their families and neighbors.

The success and proliferation of Shanghai's "health self-management groups" has drawn the attention of the World Health Organization, which has been sending representatives to the communities to see how it all works since 2010. WHO is now shedding an official spotlight on the efficacy of such grassroots projects.

At the Luyi community, the health self-management group encourages its members to control their daily intake of oil and salt, to maintain a healthy body mass index, to get regular exercise, to stop smoking and to avoid excessive alcohol consumption.

Dong Xianhua, 69, one of the leaders of the group, admits that it is often an uphill battle to convince others to change unhealthy lifestyles.

"Some people we reach out to are stubborn and unsociable," he said. "Others would rather take pills than try to change their daily lives. What many don't realize is that frequent trips to the hospital actually add to their stress but don't necessarily improve their health."

Dong said his long years with the group has been rewarding for him. He likes the talks that doctors give to the group and enjoys the recreational outings.

Zhou Xiangjun, a doctor with the Community Health Services in Xinjing Town, is an advisor to the Luyi group. He said its members are much more aware than others in the community of basic health issues and how to manage their lives to optimum wellness.

"They make fewer trips to the hospital, and a smaller percentage of them have developed serious diseases," he said.

Apart from giving monthly lectures on topics ranging from a healthy diet to common disease signals among older people, Zhou also monitors chitchat on social media to correct erroneous health information shared there.

Being fit and staying healthy aren't just a social diversion. Qi Meidi, 77, said her knowledge from the group actually helped save a life.

Two years ago at midnight, she received an emergency phone call from a friend in a neighboring building.

"I rushed to her apartment and saw that she was having trouble breathing," Qi recalled. "I suspected that she was having a heart attack."

Qi immediately called an ambulance, and her speedy reaction to the crisis got the woman to hospital in time.

"I did it knowing that someone else would do the same for me if I were in need like that," she said.

Group members have come to appreciate that good health goes beyond just physical wellness.

"Losing a spouse can have a negative impact on the mental health of older people," said Cui Xiuying, 76, a retired doctor and leader of a "health self-management group" in the Nanwang community in Changning District. "I know because I was one of those sufferers."

At the end of 2009, eight widowed members of the group formed a sub-group called the Xinge Salon. In Chinese, xinge literally means "song from the heart," and its pronunciation is similar to "single" in English.

Cui recalled the first meeting of the salon. It was washed in tears. But eventually the members took strength from each other by sharing their life stories. They developed a will to live on and embarked on a campaign to spread the warmth of caring to other singles living in their community.

"The power of healing by coming together should never be underestimated," Cui said.

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