The following was written by Lynne Applebaum, Associate Director of Health & Wellness/Membership at the Westfield Area Y
On the first day of our new exercise program, “Delay the Disease – Exercise to Fight the Symptoms of Parkinson’s,” the four of us on the Westfield Area Y professional exercise staff went into the Kellogg Room with our notes from the training, our years of exercise experience and a ton of fear. How on earth were we going to work with these people? Some of them had visible tremors in their hands, some didn’t show much expression at all, some had difficulty walking, and some came in wheelchairs. Personally, I was petrified!
We had the room set up with chairs in a circle so that everyone could easily see and hear each other. Once everyone was seated and introduced to each other, we started the class.
After a few warm up exercises – head turns, shoulder shrugs, breathing exercises – we started to feel a bit more confident as did the participants. One gentleman in the group, Sidney, sported a white ponytail and glasses. Jean, who has been teaching group exercise for 30 years, cheerily said “Good morning” to everyone in the group. Sidney shouted back, “GOOD MORNING!” at the top of his lungs. Everyone chuckled, and the group was put at ease. Jean and I looked at each other with surprise and amusement at this over the top response and wondered what we were in for! As it turns out, Sidney had been working on his vocalization skills. Many people with Parkinson’s tend to speak much more softly than they think they are, and make much smaller movements than they think they are making. Encouraging big voices and big movements is very helpful to them. Needless to say, we have come to look forward to Sidney and his BIG hellos.
It became clear to us (the Y Staff) that these folks were no different than anyone else we’ve worked with over the years, in terms of personality, intelligence, humor and drive. They just have more challenges facing them every day.
Consider Millie, and her husband Ray. They come together to the class, Ray watches Millie’s every step as she carefully considers how to negotiate turns and walk forward. Millie has what is called a “stutter step.” She sometimes freezes as she attempts to take a step forward. While staff is always at her side, ready to aid her if she needs it, it is Ray who keeps his watchful eye on her no matter where she moves during class. Whether we are encouraging Millie to look just slightly ahead to see where she has to finally land her foot, or hold a balance position just a couple of seconds longer, Ray will be watching out of the corner of his eye while he, too, is exercising. He is there to share the experience with her, but mostly, he is there to make sure his beloved is safe. It is a beautiful testament to an enduring marriage.
“Mat Days” are some of the most difficult, yet rewarding days we have in class. On these days, we have participants doing exercises on the floor, such as planks, pushups, leg raises and all kinds of strength and core exercises. It may seem unconscionable to have people who have so much difficulty with every day movements do exercises like these. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Many of them have an incredible reserve of strength, and are just looking for opportunities to show it off. Let’s use the low plank pose as an example. A low plank requires one to be in a prone position, lifted up on the forearms and balanced on the toes, stomach pulled in, head aligned with upper back, creating a “board” with your body, just above the ground. It is not easy for ANYONE but Pam and Ed held their planks for a full minute and they were both in perfect form! Imagine the mental and physical fortitude it takes to do this when you are waging a daily war against a neurological condition like Parkinson’s, which makes every physical move demanding, to say the least. I call that ironclad will.
One of the most amazing experiences I have personally taken part in with regard to this program took place at our training and we replicated it during one of our classes. All of the instructors and participants got into a very close, secure standing circle, ready to catch one another if the need arose. Greg, one of our instructors (there are many of us present during class), asked everyone to jump up and down. Yes, jump. So we did. Smiles spontaneously broke out as everyone experienced the sheer joy of jumping as a child would. For a few moments, there were no physical afflictions, no worries about falling, no stutter stepping. Just a group of people lifting their bodies and spirits together in this tight knit circle of friends, supporting each other and laughing while doing it.
For additional information about Delay the Disease Exercise Program, or any of our additional programming, please contact the Westfield Area Y at (908) 233-2700 or visit www.westfieldynj.org.