Five years ago, shortly before he moved to Sidney, B.C., George Brown slowly passed by the Advance office on Canyon Street, each step a struggle and his balance aided by two canes.
Last week, he arrived at the Advance without the aid of canes. As he came through the door he stretched his arms above his head and lifted one leg to nearly waist height.
“I can do this for 10 minutes or more,” he said, a smile widening across his face.
Brown has Parkinson’s disease, and has had it for nearly 20 years. Now, at 72, he credits his health resurgence to an exercise program he has been participating in for two years.
“I was out riding my trike and I got talking to a man who turned out to also have Parkinson’s,” Brown said after taking a seat. “He told me about a film that was being shown about Parkinson’s and suggested I come along.”
The film turned out to be the first dramatic step in improving his quality of life. What he learned was that a routine had been developed by a physiotherapist who started doing research after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The result was a program that has four pillars: focus, physical, cognition and emotional. What started as a fitness program with two participants in 2013 has grown to include more than 100 members in Sidney. One aspect of the program is the facilitator asking questions while the participants are exercising. The intent is to force the brain to think about other things while maintaining its control of physical movements.
“I pay $50 dollars a month instead of a drop-in fee,” Brown said. “We meet three times a week for an hour and I look forward to every session.”
In Creston, Brown was a physical activity enthusiast and could often be seen out riding his bicycle. But he crashed his bike and broke his neck in three places 20 years ago, and soon after began showing symptoms of Parkinson’s. But even his wife, Afa, a family physician, thought the symptoms were results of nerve damage from the accident. As his condition grew worse, Afa died after a long battle with cancer, and George relocated to Sidney to be nearer to family and medical services.
“My daughter, now a physician, told me, ‘Papa, keep moving or you’ll be in a wheelchair in three to five years,” he recalled.
Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that primarily affects the motor system. Shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement and difficulty with walking are the common early symptoms. Thinking and behavioural problems can arise and dementia is a common occurrence as the disease progresses.
When Brown entered the exercise program, he was taking nine prescription medications, including sleeping pills and antidepressants, to combat his symptoms.
“Now I’m on three medications and I’m due for a review that should reduce that number to two,” he said.
Today, he averages two to four kilometres a day walking and he often reaches his goal of 10,000 steps.
“This week I got on a bike to adjust the gears for a young fellow,” he smiled. “I hadn’t been on a bicycle for nine years! And I am back playing my Autoharp, too!”
Brown was in Creston at the invitation of his friends, Marilin and Dr. Randy Grahn, who are hoping his story can inspire the formation of a Creston exercise group. On his visit, Brown spoke to a group of 27 medical professionals, did a presentation to the Creston Rotary Club and led an exercise class at the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors.
“I think there is genuine excitement among the professionals George has spoken to, especially those who knew him before and can see the change in him,” Marilin said. “I hope there will be a program like the one George participates in up and running by the fall — and it would benefit many more people than those who have Parkinson’s. The program is simple and safe, and doesn’t cost much at all.”
“My dad used to say, ‘Keep moving and the undertaker won’t catch you,’ and, ‘Every day you wake up and don’t see dandelion roots is a good day’,” Brown laughed. “After 10 years on sleeping pills and nearly 20 on antidepressants I don’t need them any more. And it might take me a few hours to get up and mobile in the morning, but I look forward to every day!”