The symptoms of Parkinson's disease (PD) can be frustratingly disruptive to a senior's daily life, even in the early stages of the disease.
There are patients who continue to perform what appears to be normally for the first few years. They may choose to delay revealing or sharing their situation with people other than close loved ones. Many people elect not to share with others until they feel that their outward behavior is noticeable. For others, long before the diagnosis is confirmed, symptoms reveal themselves and, depending upon the mobility level or situation of the patient, they can be challenging from the onset. If you or your loved one is having difficulty accepting or knowing how to respond to some of these symptoms we have shared a few tips below from Dr. Andrew Feigin.
Andrew Feigin, M.D., director of the Experimental Therapeutics Division of the Center for Neurosciences at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, shares that the most common PD symptoms are rigidity, rest tremors, uncoordinated movements and postural instability.
He shares four examples of common problems that could strike your elderly loved one in their daily activities, along with strategies to help caregivers and seniors cope with these challenges:
- Walking with a normal gait, when they suddenly seem to be stuck to the floor. If your loved one has PD, they may experience instances where their muscles suddenly lock up while trying to walk. This is known as "freezing." According to Dr. Feigin, freezing often happens as a person is trying to start walking or as they approach an obstacle like a doorway or piece of furniture. Feigin says one strategy to encourage a re-start is to have a visual or auditory cue for them to concentrate on as they are walking. For example, you may suggest that your loved one count while walking with exaggerated, marching steps. Others may find it easier to break the freeze by picturing an object on the ground in front of them and deliberately stepping over it. A common practice is placing tape on the floor, which reminds the patient to pick up their feet a little higher. For a PD patient, picking up their feet has to become a conscious thought; however, it is easily forgotten and stumbling can lead to dangeous falls. The fear of falling is a common culprit among the reasons a senior will choose to stay home and become inactive. Such small acts can assist with keeping a healthy confidence level associated with mobility. Be a willing advocate no matter how small the task may seem.
- Hands shaking. Shaking or tremors, is one of the hallmark signs of the disease. Often striking a senior while they are sitting or lying down, tremors usually begin in the hands, but can migrate to other parts of the body. Dr. Feigin suggests that a person who is experiencing tremors should try to move the affected body part(s) in order to help alleviate their symptoms. This may not be easy for them. They may have to use the other hand to move the shaking one, use their body as leverage, or even ask for assistance.
- Difficulty swallowing food. Inhibited or uncoordinated motions (bradykinesia) are a regular symptom of PD. Bradykinesia can affect more than just general body movements. Some seniors may also experience difficulty swallowing and making facial expressions. Dr. Feigin says that recent research has indicated that exercise, in the form of regular aerobic workouts and balance-enhancing exercises such as Tai Chi, may help a senior regain some level of coordination and stability with their day-to-day movements. Seek out community programs, senior centers, or church groups that offer exercises such as yoga, tai chi, dance classes etc. There is also great value in the side effects of being active and having a date on the calendar as opposed to sitting alone at home. The social benefits alone increase their quality of life.
- Leaning forward when walking. A noticeable forward lean can look similar to someone who is walking against a strong wind. People with late-stage Parkinson's may develop a certain amount of postural instability, causing them to list forward as they move. Feigin says that physical therapy and balance exercises are a great way to combat postural instability, a common cause of falling among people with Parkinson's disease. Exercises like toe and heel raises, squats, and lunges (both forward and to the side), can help a person strengthen the muscles that help keep them balanced when they are standing and walking around. Be willing to assist in these types of exercises and encourage their participation in outside activities or therapy.
It is natural to be self-conscious when one feels their outward actions are noticeably different. Continual encouragement to be active is one of the best advantages you can offer someone you love who is experiencing these symptoms.
There are many complementary therapies to explore such as speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy. BIG therapy is extremely useful with movement issues. A certified physical therapist will assist with this approach, and the results can be very positive. The basic program is intense for about a month or so, and it does vary. The underlying idea is to teach or re-train the way we think about our movements. Exaggerated motions can help a PD patient make their movements more normal, but they must retrain their thoughts to move in big gestures.
Art therapy is another useful activity. Many patients discover new creative talents in painting, sewing, music, and writing. Researchers think this new awakening is due to chemical imbalances in the brain brought on by PD. Encourage your loved one to seek out groups and classes that encourage creative thought processes and activities.
While these are just a few ideas and suggestions, remember that there is currently no cure for PD. Developing a management plan that addresses the progression of the disease and fits you and your loved one is of great benefit. Planning ahead allows the time for gathering available information on treatments and resources.
Staying informed and communicating openly is a major key to not only understanding the symptoms, but also making the best choices as they present themselves.