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Parkinson's disease symptoms and progression can be unsettling

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

The hallmark of chronic disease is onset and its progression. One chronic disease that can be devastating in its uncertainty is Parkinson's Disease. Generally, Parkinson's disease manifests between the ages of 45 to 65. Parkinson's is a progressive disease of the nervous system.

Parkinson's Disease Symptoms: Parallels Aging-Associated Conditions

Some Parkinson's (PD) symptoms are observable. Some of the symptoms of PD may also overlap with other chronic disease symptoms frequently seen in the elderly.

  • Tremors, rigidity, and postural instability come to mind. Tremors and/or postural instability may manifest in a PD patient. Both symptoms have also been known to manifest in some elderly individuals without Parkinson's disease. PD body movements may appear slow or frozen, comparable to unrelated conditions that also may occur in some elderly individuals.
  • Cognitive impairment potentially is another overlapping symptom of PD and aging.
  • An expressionless face caused by PD may be indistinguishable from an expressionless face caused by depression in an elderly individual.

Regardless of symptoms, always seek timely medical evaluation. Only licensed doctors are trained to properly diagnose and treat chronic diseases. A medical diagnosis of PD is based on neurological tests, the patient's medical history and symptoms.

According to WebMD.com, PD is diagnosed in more than 50,000 Americans each year. To date, (2010) there is no known cure for PD.

Parkinson's Disease Progression Can be Frightening to Individuals and Their Spouses

I have personally known individuals who have lived with PD for more than a decade. A decade of living with uncertainty, anxiety, and body tremors for prolonged periods has to be distressing to those who suffer from PD.

Elders and PD

One person that comes to mind lived well into her 80's before she died. I still recall her constant tremors and how PD affected her voice. Her voice became softer, her words less distinguishable.

While her husband was alive, I wondered whether her uncontrollable tremors forced them to sleep in separate beds. The tremors were unusually strong, as I recall. Both were frail and advancing in age. Her husband's posture increasingly arched forward. Whenever I saw them together, I wondered how they managed to care for each other independently for so long.

For awhile after her husband died at the age of 92, our friend continued living independently, in spite of her tremors. She was an active volunteer, exercised daily, and was otherwise socially active well into her early 80's. She was also a cheerful testament to stress and living with chronic disease, just as her husband had been. Eventually, repeated falls meant that she could no longer volunteer. Neither was she able to continue driving safely.

Baby Boomers and PD

On the younger end of the spectrum, I know individuals in their 50's, most of whom are also married and are living with PD diagnoses. These friends are starting to come to terms with the uncertainty of their disease, its progression, and what all may be in store for them, and their spouses, as their PD progresses. All of the individuals I know who are living with PD are under medical supervision. They take prescription drugs to slow the progression of the disease and to manage its worst symptoms.

Some individuals with PD reportedly feel decreased sexual desire, which may or may not affect their marriages. The greatest fear for some PD sufferers is not knowing how severe the symptoms will become, and/or when the other personal health crisis shoe will drop.

Cognitive Impairment

One of the fears expressed by some of my friends who have PD relates to their mental distraction and occasional mental confusion. In some cases of PD, symptoms of dementia start to manifest. Depression, apathy, and sometimes anxiety, can also be PD symptoms. Depending on the severity of cognitive and/or physical symptoms, individuals with PD may become increasingly disabled. Some PD sufferers may be unable to function independently as the disease progresses.

Stress Makes Things Worse

According to medical experts, stress may worsen PD symptoms, particularly tremors. If you are a caregiver to an elder who has been diagnosed with PD, try to create a relaxing home environment.

  • At day's end, you both may enjoy a couple hours of smooth and easy listening music or other comparable activity.
  • Turn the television off while eating, particularly news programming, unless there is an emergency you need to follow.
  • Share any praise stories or the best of the best with each other at day's end. End each day with positive sharing, if possible.
  • Things happen, and we all become upset in our lives at one time or another. Where possible, though, ""don't allow the sun to set on your wrath."" This Biblical truth from the Book of Ephesians 4:26, is quite universal in its wisdom and well-suited to caregiving.
  • With medical input and ongoing supervision, exercise may help minimize some symptoms of PD. Walking, talking, and if the person in your care is able to do so, light stretching, even while seated, may be beneficial to the individual's health.

PD or not, a bear hug at day's end is just what the doctor ordered for caregivers and our elders. Sending a cyber hug to you and your loved one. ""Here's to your health,"" as I often say to my Mom whenever I toast using our glasses of ice-cold water. Clink!