Getting back to life with Parkinson’s

Barbara has been given new life and new purpose: To spread the word that there is hope through exercise for persons with Parkinson's disease.
December 14th, 2017

“Have I shown you how I can walk backward?” asked the small-framed woman, who then took about 10 steps backward — enough to prove her point.

Her face began to glow as she continued, “I couldn’t do that before.”

Parkinson’s disease had inhibited Barbara Smith from doing many things — standing with a snack in one hand and a drink in the other while talking to someone — a multi-tasking combination most wouldn’t think twice about.

“I couldn’t do it, so I had to sit, many times alone, and wait for people to come to me,” she said.

The combination of walking while turning her head also made her stumble so much that even grocery shopping became burdensome and somewhat dangerous.

Life with Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s affects no two people the same, nor will any two people have precisely the same symptoms. But common symptoms of this progressive disorder of the nervous system include tremors, muscular rigidity and slow, imprecise movements.

Smith first realized something was wrong when she literally couldn’t get out of bed one morning. But her symptoms came and went, and she struggled for years — her doctor first thinking it was stress — before being diagnosed in 2000.

Then almost a decade later, while checking out a health club on vacation in Tucson, Arizona, Smith walked by an exercise class that made her stop in wonder.

It was a Parkinson Wellness Recovery, or PWR!, class.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these people look normal,’” she recalled.

The PWR! program was created by Dr. Becky G. Farley, who used research on exercise and brain change to develop a model that provides real-world health changes for those with Parkinson’s disease. Smith’s discovery, and how things fell into place from there, was nothing less than “serendipity,” she said.

Smith was able to attend Farley’s class twice while in Tucson. She recognized one of the participants in the class as a person who had been featured on a television newscast. The individual progressed from a wheelchair to riding her bike in the Tour de Tucson. Smith learned that Farley was planning to train therapists throughout the country on her new model. Denver was going to be her first stop.

So passionate about her sudden discovery, Smith returned to Fort Collins and called every listing in the phone book associated with occupational therapy, physical therapy or fitness instruction to tell them about the upcoming training. She also called her friend Berny Henriksen, a fitness instructor, who caught the enthusiasm and invited her fitness instructor friend, Hillary Beck-Gifford. Both attended the training.

The power of exercise

Barbara Smith plays pickleball in this photo. Smith was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2000.
Barbara Smith was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2000 and it wasn’t until she found PWR! class that she’s been able to enjoy life with the movement disorder.

“Exercise is very important because Parkinson’s is a movement disorder, and for some reason, exercise helps balance that system,” Beck-Gifford said.

Research shows that exercise can change the brain and have a positive impact on Parkinson’s symptoms, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation.

“There are underlying issues that go along with Parkinson’s, and even if you can’t stop that tremor, if you can improve overall physiological function, you still improve life,” said Dr. Margaret Schenkman, PhD, PT, director of physical therapy at UCHealth’s Anschutz Medical Campus. “In other words, it may be really important to improve flexibility, retain lower and upper body strength, and preserve cardiovascular function for people to function as well as possible within the constraints of the disease.”

Bob Waldchen, a northern Colorado physical therapist already trained by Farley, was the only other person to respond to Smith’s calls. Farley recommended he work intensively with Smith to improve her balance. But it wasn’t long before a local class was born, thanks to the synergism of Smith’s determination, Waldchen’s perspective, and networking by Henrikson and Beck-Gifford. Soon after, Aspen Club, a UCHealth program that provides health-related activities, services and educational opportunities to northern Colorado’s older adults, jumped on board.

UCHealth is here to help

PWR! Moves — level II. The Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery (PWR!) class helps people with Parkinson’s Disease move better and longer through exercise.

New sessions began January 2018. Call 970.578.1298 for more information or to register.

  • 1–2 p.m. Thursdays, Studio West, 216 W. Horsetooth Road, Suite B.
  • For a level I PWR! Moves class, please call the Fort Collins Senior Center.

Tai chi for balance. Tai chi helps prevent falls by improving balance and mobility, increasing leg strength and flexibility and reducing your overall fear of falling. Research shows that regular tai chi practice has a positive impact on reducing falls time and time again. This class is encouraged for individuals with Parkinson’s; however, it is open to anyone who feels they need more balance.

  • 1–2 p.m. Mondays, 11 Studio West, 216 W. Horsetooth Road, Suite B.

Tai chi for healthy living. Tai chi uses gentle and fluid movements to increase strength and flexibility, decrease pain in joints, decrease stress, reduce blood pressure, improve balance and improve your sense of well-being.

  • Advanced: 9–10 a.m. Fridays, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 2000 S. Lemay Ave.
  • Intermediate: 10:15–11:15 a.m. Fridays, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 2000 S. Lemay Ave.
  • Beginning: 8–8:55 a.m. Fridays, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, 2000

For Smith, learning about the program may have been serendipitous, but the results have been decidedly practical.

“Now I can carry my own dish to my neighbor’s potluck,” Smith said with excitement.

In addition, she can get out of a chair and in and out of her car more easily. The class has allowed her to get back to being more active. She’s tried Parkinson’s boxing and pickleball activities. Smith also gardens, regularly swims a half mile, and is gearing up for snowshoe season, she said.

“What’s interesting is that everyone does Parkinson’s their own way,” Beck-Gifford said. “There is not one way it happens, but we always see people respond to exercise. It also helps people have a better attitude to be part of the group, and this class gets them out moving, if just for one hour. We are seeing people do better, and they are saying they feel better.”

Smith calls it all a miracle.

“All of this couldn’t have happened the way it did by chance,” she continued. “I’ve been given new life and a new purpose in life, and that is to spread the word that there is hope for a better quality of life through exercise for persons with Parkinson’s disease.”

To learn about PWR! and other classes in northern Colorado, such as Tai Chi, contact the Aspen Club at 970.495.8560 or visit them at uchealth.org/services/community-health/aspen-club. For more on UCHealth’s services related to Parkinson’s disease, visit uchealth.org. And for a full list of local Parkinson’s support groups, visit www.pdsupportlc.net.