For actor Alan Alda, living with Parkinson’s disease isn’t about stepping back, it’s about reaching out. The actor, perhaps best known for his role on the TV series M*A*S*H, recently went public about his experience to talk about how he’s still living on his own terms. He’s adapting to life with Parkinson’s, but it doesn’t define him.
"It hasn't stopped my life at all,” Alda, said on CBS This Morning. “I've had a richer life than I've had up until now.”
By staying active and maintaining a positive, resilient attitude, Alda is taking the right approach in coping with Parkinson’s, said Anissa Mitchell, a licensed clinical social worker and Parkinson’s Outreach Center Manager at Florida Hospital.
“Alan’s attitude is positive and he’s doing the right things to manage his condition,” she says.
Shortly after his announcement, Alda posted a video of himself juggling with the caption, “If you get a diagnosis, keep moving!"
Florida Hospital’s Parkinson Outreach Center offers options for people with Parkinson’s to take an active role in preserving their independence. That includes exercise classes to strengthen the body, wellness classes to sharpen the mind and support groups to lift the spirit.
To learn more about these options, visit our website.
This emphasis on taking control of your life is part of Florida Hospital’s CREATION Health philosophy. It’s not simply the changes you make that will help; the very idea that you are in control of your own life can improve your mood and enhance your spirit.
“You can choose to look at this as something that’s not going to control you,” Mitchell says. “You have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s doesn’t have you.”
What is Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s disease, named after the English doctor who first described it in 1817, impairs the brain’s ability to control muscles and movement.
Though there appears to be a genetic part of Parkinson’s — about one in seven people with the illness have a close relative with it — doctors don’t really know what causes it. Though there is no known cure, medication can improve symptoms.
The illness is progressive, which in this case means its symptoms are minor at first but get worse over time. Though the illness is often associated with a shaking of the hands, about a third of those with Parkinson’s do not have this symptom, Mitchell says.
The disease itself is not fatal, but its complications, like an inability to swallow, can be.
When he described his own active lifestyle, Alda was careful not to minimize the experience of those with more severe symptoms. As the illness progresses — the length of time it takes varies person-to-person — those with Parkinson’s tend to depend more and more on caregivers.
As the early signs of Parkinson’s can be subtle, many people don’t know they have it. But the earlier one begins treatment, the slower the disease will progress and the longer the person will be able to remain independent.
Alda experienced one symptom that seems unusual but is common in Parkinson’s early stages — acting out a dream in real life. In his case, the dream was about someone throwing a sack of potatoes at him, which he acted out by throwing a pillow at his wife while he was asleep.
Slowing Down Parkinson’s
Alda has said hobbies include playing tennis, boxing and marching to the music of John Philip Sousa.
Allyson Demetriadis is a neurophysical therapist at Florida Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, meaning she’s a physical therapist with special training and experience in disorders of the brain and nerves.
One-on-one physical therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease is often aimed at overcoming the blocks that prevent them from moving freely, she says. It typically begins with an initial evaluation to develop a plan of care that is tailored to each patient’s goals and values. The twice-weekly sessions are augmented with exercises patients can do at home between appointments.
One technique to help patients find a more confident walking rhythm involves a metronome, a device that makes a sound at a regular beat.
“We set a beat on the metronome, and every time it beats, the patient takes a step,” Demetriadis says. A tape on the ground can also serve as a visual marker.
“We use musical and visual cues like rhythm to help patients tap into their other senses to overcome their movement challenges,” she says.
Too often, patients with Parkinson’s experience symptoms — such as a difficulty talking or making facial expressions — that lead them to withdraw from their social lives.
Furthermore, about half of those with Parkinson’s experience depression or anxiety, Mitchell says.
“The disease can be isolating for a lot of reasons, but we know the more people stay socially engaged the more motivated they become,” Mitchell says. “Visiting with friends and family also helps your mind stay sharp.”
Many patients diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease will experience depression throughout the disease process. Just as exercise can help protect the brain from the progression of the disease, exercise has also been shown to improve a person’s mood.
“If people can get on board with exercise as soon as they are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they can delay progression of the disease and help improve their quality of life,” she says.
Florida Hospital holds a drama and arts program called CHEER>UP, which uses the stage to teach confidence and communication. It can help patients in many ways, including by:
- Improving posture and balance
- Finding ways to manage depression and boost the mood through laughter
- Keeping the brain sharp through stimulation
- Strengthening the voice
- Sharing creativity to connect with others
Other Florida Hospital options include:
- LSVT® Loud, which uses scientifically proven techniques to improve breathing, swallowing and talking clearly
- LSVT® Big, also a research-backed program, this time focusing on helping patients improve their balance, walk faster and avoid falls and other injuries
- Parkinson Wellness Recovery (PWR) Program, a group exercise class to improve movement, balance and coordination
- Music therapy, which uses a wide variety of techniques to help with movement and mental health issues like anxiety and depression
- Support groups for people with Parkinson’s and their caregivers, to share information about the disease and how to live with it
- Educational classes, starting with PD 101, to learn about Parkinson’s and understand how to manage it
At the Parkinson Outreach Center, we care about our patients’ well-being in all aspects of their life, from strengthening their bodies to improving their mood to enlivening their spirits.