Salt Lake County provides haven for Parkinson’s patients

Story and photos by Jessica Gonzales

Every morning, Fred Buchanan, 78, wakes up and takes his medication to prevent and relieve the uncontrollable shaking of his hands and feet. In 1992, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and over the course of 15 hours, he’ll take 18 pills to help alleviate his symptoms.

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Fred Buchanan works on exercises to improve his balance at the Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinic.

For nearly one million Americans nationwide who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD), most are of the aging population. This neurological disease develops in patients due to a lack of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter that aids in the roles of cognition and movement. As time progresses, stages of the disease become more apparent with symptoms including tremors, rigidity and postural instability. There is currently no cure for the disease.

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, currently one million Americans suffer from the disease and nearly 130 out of 100,000 Americans over 65 will be diagnosed with it every year.

For those suffering from Parkinson’s disease in the Salt Lake Valley, the University of Utah provides information resources for patients and their families. Sylinda Lee is the program coordinator for Utah’s chapter of the American Parkinson’s Disease Association (APDA) Information Center, which devotes its time to finding guidance for patients suffering from the disease and their families. The information center is a haven for those who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and offers a wide array of support groups, referrals to local neurological doctors and physical therapy options.

“Support centers and education helps them to manage their disease better so that they’ll be able to have a better life and quality of life,” Lee said. “As they learn more about their disease, they learn how to deal with it better.”

Through providing educational opportunities for Parkinson’s patients in Utah, Lee believes in focusing on the mental and physical health aspects. Called the “Four-legged stool,” she highlights four attributes that will help ease the symptoms of those going through PD: communication with a medical professional, physical therapy and exercise, a positive attitude and social support. By targeting these elements, namely support among family and friends, Lee believes patients will still be able to lead active and productive lifestyles while living with the disease.

“It’s really healthy for them to get involved,” Lee said. “It helps them contribute and feel like they’re fighting their disease.”

At the University of Utah Rehabilitation Clinic, the Parkinsonism Exercise and Wellness program provides PD patients with physical therapy and strength training exercises. These exercises target balance, strength and mobility to alleviate some of the symptoms many patients experience as a result of having Parkinson’s.

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Parkinson's disease patients exercise at different workout stations at the Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinic.

Jim Ballard is a physical therapist at the program and typically works with five to 10 patients twice a week, most who are 65 and older. While noticing the physical benefits that therapy provides, he says there are social benefits as well.

“The Parkinsonism Exercise and Wellness Program also provides a social and an educational benefit,” Ballard said. “Individuals with PD are able to meet others with the same disease and interact with them on a regular basis.”

Buchanan, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 18 years ago, has participated in the Parkinson’s Wellness Program since 2004. Attending twice a week for approximately one hour, Buchanan credits his overall health to his wife and the physical therapists at the rehabilitation clinic.

“My wife has been very supportive for me over the years,” Buchanan said. “And the staff really puts themselves out to reach our goals. It’s social and we find people that we can relate to.”

Reaching patients and their families is seen as a vital asset for the APDA and its programs. With awareness through newsletters and support groups, the University of Utah and the APDA aim to supply PD patients with the tools they need to continue carrying out their daily activities. Through networking and support, Lee hopes that patients will find a sanctuary among their families and communities.

“Right now there’s no cure, so people don’t have that light at the end of the tunnel,” Lee said. “But what they do have is the ability to really continue to have a quality of life, even if they have the disease.”