Dekalb therapist: 5 tips to keep Parkinson's patients moving

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Sometimes caregivers don't realize that it takes a Parkinson's patient a little longer to process instructions. Giving them a few moments to think through the next move can help. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Physical therapy is widely known for helping people regain mobility after injuries or hip replacements, but physical therapy also can be a boon for those with chronic movement issues, such as Parkinson's disease patients.

Parkinson's is a neurodegenerative condition that makes coordinated muscle movement difficult. It usually is diagnosed in patients in their 60s or 70s but can be found in adults even in their 30s. As the population ages, more than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year.

"I've seen Parkinson's patients benefit so much, even if they are only able to improve their mobility by small increments," said Cindy Brandt, physical therapy assistant with KishHealth System in DeKalb who has been working with Parkinson's patients for 14 years. "If all you do is sit, your muscles get tight. So then when it's time to move, it becomes a lot of work.

Brandt will be heading an education program, "Living with Parkinson's Disease," for patients, their families and caregivers on Jan. 15 at Valley West Community Hospital, a part of KishHealth System, in Sandwich. The session will offer advice and physical therapy tips for improving mobility.

Among her suggestions:

1. Keep stretching. ""It is very important to continue to stretch tight muscles and strengthen as well," she said. Simple exercises such as bending and straightening the knees, bending the trunk forward and back a few times prior to standing up can improve the safety of this transfer.

2. Use the right kind of furniture. "For example," she says, "I recommend patients use chairs that have arms. Then when they are ready to get up, they need to slide forward to the edge of the chair, and use the arms to help push their bodies up."

3. Give the patient time to process. Parkinson's also takes a toll on the amount of time it takes for the brain to process verbal cues. "I think this is one of the toughest aspects for families. They think Grandma doesn't want to follow instructions, or can't hear,'' she said. "But if they use very simple cues about how to move, and give the patient time to process the request, activities can be less stressful for all.

4. Time activity carefully. Because movement is so taxing for patients, Brandt also will discuss energy conservation and how attempting tasks when medications cause the fewest side effects can be helpful.

"Some people need to nap in the morning, some in the afternoon. It's all about what works best for each patient."

5. Learn to use equipment. Gait belts to help ensure patients' safety when walking. "A therapist can show families how to help patients walk and transfer to cars and different setting," she said. "We also have lots of tips for making it easier to get dressed and eat."

Brandt said when Parkinson's patients who start out very rigid and barely able to walk reach the point where they are walking a few steps, "they are just elated. And their new flexibility makes it easier to do other things like dressing and toileting. It's a real boost to their self-esteem.

"It's really rewarding to see this kind of improvement,'' the therapist remarked. "These are the things that young, healthy people take for granted."

Karen Huelsman is a local freelance writer specializing in health care issues.