The Marilyn Hilton MS Achievement Center at UCLA empowers people with multiple sclerosis to take control of their health and well-being through educational and experiential programs. Established in 2001, the center is a collaborative effort of the UCLA Department of Neurology and the Southern California & Nevada Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, with support from the Hilton Foundation. It offers wellness interventions that complement the medical treatment participants receive for the disease. It is open to all patients with MS, regardless of where they receive their medical care. Executive director Elise Herlihy, RN, MSN, and medical director Barbara Giesser, MD, talked about the center and its approach to promoting wellness. Broad array of wellness programs and services available to patients with MS
How is the Marilyn Hilton MS Achievement Center different from other programs for people living with MS?
Elise Herlihy: Traditionally, adult day programs are available for people with MS to receive medication and nursing or custodial care with quality-of-life activities based on age and ability. That is not what our achievement center is about. Our center attracts and empowers those with MS who want to make substantive changes to improve their lives. We do not provide neurologic care; we are focused on strategies to enhance health and wellness for individuals all along the MS spectrum, from the newly diagnosed to people who have been living with MS for many years. We offer a variety of innovative MS-focused programs provided by a multidisciplinary team of highly experienced professionals from the Department of Neurology, Department of Clinical Nutrition, UCLA Rehabilitation Services, as well as yoga instructors, mental health professionals, speech and language pathologists and volunteers.
How do lifestyle and wellness services benefit the overall well-being of people with MS?
Dr. Barbara Giesser: When the center was established 18 years ago, medical professionals were just beginning to appreciate the importance of lifestyle and wellness strategies. That now is the standard of care, but back then it really wasn’t, so the concept of this kind of a center was visionary. Today, we treat exercise as a therapeutic modality; we have data from clinical trials that it reduces many symptoms in MS, improves the ability to function and improves quality of life. We also are starting to get data on the importance of nutrition and a healthy diet. And, we now recognize from studies that smoking is probably the single worst thing for someone with MS.
Herlihy: Social support also is very important. We offer art therapy sessions, which are led by a mental health professional, during which participants have a chance to discuss, in a safe and confidential environment, how they are coping with MS and any challenges they are facing. We also know that for people with MS, connecting with others who have MS and learning how others are coping is valuable. The center serves as a therapeutic community.
What programs does the center offer?
Herlihy: Our flagship program, REACH to Achieve, is a comprehensive health and wellness program for people who have been living with MS for some period of time and are experiencing challenges related to their symptoms. They come in once a week on an ongoing basis for wellness activities that include recreation, adaptive fitness, adaptive yoga, cognitive stimulation, emotional wellness, nutrition and health education. In addition, the center offers several multi-week programs, some on the weekends to make it easier for those who work during the week. Living Well is for people who have been diagnosed with MS within the last couple of years. It serves as an introductory course where they learn about MS, the medications to control the disease and other strategies to manage symptoms, as well as exercise, nutrition, stress management, employment and disclosure concerns and ways to optimize their well-being and restore balance in their lives. Our Exercise and MS program is offered for individuals who are mobile and want to work with a fitness specialist and recreation therapist to learn about the various components of exercise and how to use functional exercises to improve their wellness and manage their symptoms. CogniFitness, for people living with MS who are experiencing mild cognitive problems, provides strategies and tools for dealing with common memory and cognitive challenges. Free From Falls is a multi-week fall-prevention program for people with MS who are able to walk but might be at risk for falling. The center also links participants with the National MS Society’s MS Navigator program, which connects them to other resources and support.
How effective are these programs?
Dr. Giesser: When the center was being developed, part of the idea was that it could serve as a place to pilot programs, with those that prove to be successful and beneficial then going nationwide. That is what has happened with many of our programs that now are being offered by the National MS Society chapters, and the Marilyn Hilton MS Achievement Center at UCLA achievement center as a whole has served as a national model.
How has the outlook for individuals newly diagnosed with MS improved over the years?
Dr. Giesser: The prognosis is so much more hopeful now. When I started working in the MS field almost 40 years ago, we didn’t have any disease-modifying therapies and didn’t appreciate the importance of wellness strategies. Today, when I talk to young, newly diagnosed patients, I tell them that while it is true that we cannot cure MS, we can control it. We have medications that will limit future nerve damage and limit attacks, medications and other treatments to ameliorate symptoms and improve function, and we have wellness strategies. With a combination of appropriate neurologic care, medication and healthy living and wellness strategies, we can make significant improvements in their lives.