Add the coronavirus pandemic, and Minnesotans with chronic and terminal illnesses are even more isolated

One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic has been the isolation that so many people have experienced. Local psychologists report an increase in clients suffering from the anxiety and depression that such isolation can produce.

But there is one underreported, yet a significant group that has been even more severely impacted by the pandemic and its resulting restrictions: people with life-threatening or chronic health conditions.

Imagine being someone with cancer, or debilitating diabetes, COPD or Parkinson’s disease. And then imagine not being able to leave your home, except for periodic doctor’s appointments — many of which are gravitated online — as you face your illness and the fear of contracting COVID-19.

These folks are clients of ours at Pathways, A Healing Center.

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Our organization was established in 1988 to provide free wellness and complementary health care services and programs like acupuncture, grief circles, massage and guided movement to people with life-threatening and chronic illnesses.

As the early days of the pandemic forced the closing of our doors, we grappled with what to do, fearing that our clients would experience a high degree of isolation. In my 13 years of serving as Pathways executive director, we had never experienced a large-scale crisis like the one we were facing. Fortunately, with the full support of the staff and our board, we were able to launch a virtual services platform for our free wellness and complementary health care services and programs.

I was glad that we could pivot, yet I worried: Would this meet the needs of our unusual client base? Before the pandemic, our research showed that our in-person services significantly improved people’s quality of life by reducing pain, anxiety and fatigue.

Now two and half years into a pandemic that never seems to end — with each new variant more transmissible than the last — we wanted to understand how effective we were at meeting our clients’ needs.

New research conducted by a researcher from the University of Arizona on the effectiveness of Pathways’ virtual service offerings shows that our virtual programs (Tai Chi, meditation, writing for healing and life coaching, to name just a few), like those offered in person (energy healing, yoga) achieved equally strong outcomes, positively and significantly impacting people’s quality of life.

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The new research findings — currently under peer review and slated to be published later this year — showed the pathways participants progressing from depressed to joyful and overwhelmed to empowered, plus 16 more before-and-after pairings such as hopeless to hopeful and broken to whole. Positive shifts like these are associated with healthy lifestyle changes for disease management, pain reduction and fewer hospitalizations.

Tim Thorpe

concluded that: “The successful shift to virtual programming, with similar outcomes of positive change, suggests that a mixed model of virtual plus in-person programming in the future may expand the reach of integrative services, beyond the limitations of previous programming.”

But it’s not just in the research; our numbers also tell the same story. In 2020, 4,088 services were scheduled through Pathways’ virtual programming platform; In 2021, 5,345 services were scheduled — a 31% increase in virtual services usage. And so far in 2022, that trend is continuing, with an 18% increase this June compared to last June.

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“Pathways offered me a space to be with other people who were also suffering, learning and healing,” said Kate Jackson, a cancer survivor and former Pathways participant who switched careers to be a health and wellbeing coach after her cancer diagnosis and now leads pathways classes. “Accessibility is what’s key. People with chronic and terminal illnesses often don’t feel well — but virtual services mean they don’t have to leave home to stay connected and receive support and care.”

As the latest phase of the pandemic continues to escalate, it’s important to let people with chronic or life-threatening illnesses who are feeling the effects of isolation knowing that they are not alone. And that there is a free resource available to them, and it’s right here at http://www.pathwaysminneapolis.org.

In person or online, we are — and will be — here for them.

Tim Thorpe is the executive director at Pathways, A Healing Center.

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