My biggest fear is being perceived as stupid. I'll take brains over brawn any day.
Like others with Parkinson's Disease who are well-educated and value their intelligence, my stomach churns when I even contemplate taking a neuropsychological exam. What if I'm not as smart as I thought I was? What if I've already begun the slippery slope toward cognitive decline?
When I'm worried about losing my marbles, I reduce my anxiety by taking neuropsychological practice exams. After all, practice makes perfect, or as close to it as possible for a Parkinson's patient. Two of my favorites found online are:
I’ve been pondering Olie Westheimer’s question about what is unique about dance (versus exercise) that makes it so beneficial to those of us with Parkinson’s Disease.
The following are some random thoughts about why I prefer dancing with the Rockyettes over other forms of exercise for the management of my Parkinson’s symptoms.
As a former CPA, let’s face it: I dance and think like an accountant. I do what I do best: spreadsheets. I create a 3 column spreadsheet for each new dance that I learn.
1st column: lyrics
2nd column: written dance steps
3rd column: graphic (clip art) that depicts the step
By using all of the above methods– lyrics, written steps, graphics – I am more likely to remember.
Self-Cueing: In addition, I use self-cuing to remember the steps and sequences. Certain words in the lyrics and certain musical instruments in the songs remind me that I should be at a certain place in the dance. Also, I make up names to remind myself of the step. For example, one step reminds me of the Statute of Liberty, and I name it as such. Another dancer names a step "shaking the laundry" because it reminds her of that.
My class is made up of many retired teachers who have helped their students learn by creative methods, using all of their senses.
Focus: Dance helps me to focus and concentrate. It is important to focus on the current dance step/sequence while at the same time asking myself what step comes next. It's a form of multitasking, which most of us with Parkinson’s struggle with.
Visualization: Once I've learned a dance fairly well, I use mental rehearsal to solidify what I learned. Before bed, I visualize in my mind the entire dance with accompanying music. This only works if I already know the dance, otherwise I'm rehearsing errors in the movies of my mind.
Psychological Benefits: Dancing and depression/apathy are incompatible. It's impossible for me to be depressed while dancing. In class, our focus is on dance, not personal problems.
Power of the Group: Most of the Rockyettes are in their 60s and 70s. It appears that out of the 50 dancers, I am the only one with Parkinson’s, while some of the other dancers are dealing with serious health issues, e.g., cancer, rods in backs, etc. We see ourselves as dancers, not patients.
With the focus being on dance, I never think or feel like I have Parkinson’s when I dance. People tell me that they don't observe my Parkinson’s symptoms when I dance.
The experience that I have practicing my dance with the video at home in the basement is entirely different from dancing with the group in the dance studio. Any feelings of loneliness and isolation dissipate immediately when I enter the dance studio.
Also, not wanting to let down the other dancers motivates me to learn the dances.
Performing: One of the reasons that I joined the Rockyettes was because the group frequently performs at different retirement communities and at various events (including my upcoming sweet 60th birthday party in October). For someone with strong performance needs such as me, dancing provides the perfect outlet. It is rewarding to dance to appreciative audiences, and we are inspired to keep on dancing.
I’m in the front row, last person on the right.
One more thing about Parkinson's and dance...
From my dance classes and performances, I've learned flexibility in terms of attitude.
How to handle when the dance teacher says, "subject to change" when learning a new dance piece. My response is always, "We're flexible."
How to handle when a dancers fails to show up at the performance and all of a sudden you have a new dance partner and a new place in the line up.
How to handle dancing on a diagonal.
How to handle entering/exiting on stage right when you have always practiced entering/exiting at stage left or vice-versa.
You’re not going to observe any signs of apathy or depression in these Parkinson's dancers in Colorado Springs and Brooklyn. In fact, even talking about Parkinson’s Disease is forbidden in their dance classes. Their focus is on dance, not disease. Check out the following story:
Story from: New Bern Sun Journal - by Brian Newsome - June 27, 2009
Colorado Springs, Colorado - Barbara Willis moves with the steady grace you might expect from someone who's taught dance for decades.
Her eyes are closed, and she seems lost in the music.
Her moves are slow and purposeful. She tells the class to take deep breaths and reach upward.
The five students, a hodgepodge of elderly and middle-aged men and women, sit in folding chairs and do exactly as she says.
"It's amazing how, if you have a tremor, it will disappear during this song," Willis, 73, tells them. "These moves are difficult for us, but the music overcomes it."
Two things have brought them together in this mirrored studio in southwest Colorado Springs: Parkinson's disease, and a belief that dancing and movement can help fight it.
For an hour each week, they march, they balance, they dance back and forth to music, all with the idea that they can use movement to combat a disease infamous for taking it away. Some of their caregivers also participate.
"Parkinson's wants to take you and fold you in half and never let you go," Willis says, as the students prepare to stand beside their chairs and lift one leg off the ground.
Every move is a way to slowly unfold again.
Willis' class, held at Spectrum Wellness and Rehabilitation Center, was born out of her personal experience with the disease.
A dancer since her youth, she was diagnosed in 1999.
She consulted a hand surgeon when writing became difficult. He sent her to a neurologist who immediately suspected Parkinson's.
For someone who'd built so much of her life around movement, getting diagnosed with a disease made famous for robbing people of mobility was an especially cruel blow.
She decided to keep dancing, if for no other reason than to preserve her peace of mind. To her surprise, the sessions seemed to help with the symptoms.
She had better balance, better posture and more smoothness in her motion.
Her neurologist, impressed with her progress, urged her to start a class for others.
Unknown to her, a similar program was taking place in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Eight years ago, Olie Westheimer, a dancer married to a prominent Parkinson's researcher, started a Parkinson's support group in Brooklyn to help her husband in his job.
Westheimer was looking for activities to help patients get their minds off the disease when she learned that the world-famous Mark Morris Dance Group had moved to town.
She called to see whether the group would be interested in hosting her support group.
The program has been featured in the national media and has become a model that's led to startup programs worldwide, Westheimer said.
The idea began with a love of dance, but, like Willis, she quickly began to realize its benefit as a kind of therapy.
"The aim of the class is to try to move as beautifully as you can."
"It sounds crazy, but it works," Westheimer said.
Willis' students have said they are able to move a little more freely during and after their classes. But anecdotes don't go far in science, and researchers are in the early stages of exploring how movement and exercise affect the disease.
One such researcher is Margaret Schenkman of the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, who is leading a study to examine a variety of exercises for differences in their effectiveness against Parkinson's.
Previous studies have shown exercise to be beneficial to Parkinson's patients, she said, but whether that's because it somehow helps repair the brain or simply compensates for the disease's deficits is a mystery. Some animal studies have linked exercise with reversing the progression of the disease, but what happens in animals doesn't always prove true in humans.
Her study is at least a year away from completion.
Willis, a retired nurse who worked in neurology, and Westheimer are both well-versed in science, as well as dance, and they say the intersection of performing arts and Parkinson's is not as strange as it might seem at first.
Dance, they say, requires an intense focus on movement, balance, vision and a number of other techniques you might find in a physical therapy session.
"You'd never have a dancer saying, ‘Oh, I use cognitive strategies to dance,'" said Westheimer, but that's exactly what they're doing
"Science is now beginning to understand what dancers know."
Willis said the "mindfulness" of dance and the power of music add something that other exercise does not.
Dr. Brian Grabert, a neurologist at Colorado Springs Health Partners, treats about 200 Parkinson's patients, including Willis and some people involved in her dance program.
In general, he said, those who exercise appear more upbeat and less apathetic, and they tend to report having fewer falls, one of the most serious consequences of the disease as it progresses.
There's one thing that Parkinson's patients find in these classes that they can't find in a doctor's office or rehab session: fun.
Ric Pfarrer, 55, a financial planner and president of a Parkinson's support group, attends Willis' class. He said the chance to come together and have a good time with patients going through the same thing can be as valuable as any physical benefit.
That's a sentiment shared by many others.
Peggy Robinson, 60, said, "I like feeling like I'm not all alone."
At Westheimer's classes, in fact, talk about Parkinson's is not allowed because the emotional escape is one of its strengths. "There's no problem talked about in our class," she said. "We're just dancing."
Considering that 80 percent of Parkinson's sufferers have experienced bouts of depression and report feeling isolated, that's nothing to take lightly.
Grabert said apathy is one of the most common mood disorders associated with the disease, but that's not something he's seen in Willis and other Parkinson's patients who dance.