Parkinson’s and Seniors

Parkinson’s and Seniors

April is National Parkinson’s Awareness Month.  The disease came into prominence when, in 1998, Michael J. Fox disclosed publicly that he had the disease since 1991 having been diagnosed when he was only 30.  He used his celebrity status to become the leading advocate for research toward finding a cure.

Although Michael was only 30, Parkinson’s usually affects those over 65.  Today approximately 1.5 million Americans have the disease and 60,000+ per year are diagnosed.  Approximately 1 percent of all seniors have some form of Parkinson’s and men are 50% more men than women are afflicted.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder resulting from nerve cells in the brain not producing enough of the chemical dopamine, which regulates movement.  The disease develops gradually, often starting on one side of the body as a slight tremor in one hand, for example. One of the most noticeable symptoms of Parkinson’s is tremor in which the body makes involuntary quivering movements.  As the disorder progresses, the trembling may spread to both sides of the body and be accompanied by other symptoms such as muscle stiffness, slowing of movement, and deterioration in balance and coordination. Some people with Parkinson’s will eventually experience dementia as their disease progresses, including loss of memory and other cognitive functions.  This progression generally takes four to eight years after the initial onset of the disease.

Primary Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • Difficulties with balance, swallowing, chewing, speaking
  • Tremor
  • Slowness
  • Rigidity/stiffness
  • Poor balance

Secondary Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • Sleep issues, including waking up frequently during the night or suddenly falling asleep during the day
  • Psychological issues including problems with cognition, anxiety and depression
  • Cognitive problems (dementia), hallucinations, or loss of intellectual capacity, usually in the later stages of the disease
  • Difficulty showing facial expression, such as smiling or frowning
  • Speech may become slow, whispery, or slurred
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing, risk of choking; excessive salivation, drooling
  • Constipation, loss of bowel and/or bladder control
  • Handwriting may become small, cramped
  • Difficulty with fine movements such as tying shoe laces or buttoning shirts
  • Excessive sweating, sexual dysfunction, aches and pains
  • Scaling, dry skin on the face or scalp

Families can help and protect their loved-one in many ways.  They can reduce the risk of falls and other accidents due to poor balance by:

  • Arrange a home safety evaluation
  • Install and use grab bars in the tub and shower
  • Buy and use a bath chair or stool in the shower
  • Keep floors smooth but not slippery
  • Store supplies in easy to reach cabinets
  • Brightly light stairways
  • Put nightlights in bathrooms and hallways
  • Keep hallways and other walking areas free of clutter
  • Make sure carpets are fully tacked to the ground; remove throw rugs
  • Make sure the loved-one wears low-heeled, comfortable shoes; no slippery socks and slippers

They can also implement living and lifestyle changes including:

  • Reduce stress
  • Increase socialization, decrease isolation
  • Access physical therapy, massage therapy by senior/geriatric specialists
  • Exercise or walk together
  • Establish a dietary and medication schedule
  • Cut food into smaller portions to avoid choking and improve digestion
  • Have the person sit upright for 30 minutes after a meal
  • Learn the Heimlich maneuver
  • Modify tasks so they can continue to do things for themselves no matter how long it takes
  • Find alternative means of transportation

So far there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, but there are medications and treatment that address the symptoms of the disease.  The most common medications that are prescribed are:

  • Levodopa/Carbidopa (Sinemet)
  • Entacapone (Comtan)
  • Dopamine agonists
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors

Depending on the patient, the physician may discuss surgical options.

Having a loved-one with Parkinson’s changes all lives.  The person must be cared for, but other family members must take care of themselves as well.  Caregivers need to take regular breaks to avoid burnout.  They also must maintain social activities and ties.  It is more important than ever to find was to relax, enjoy themselves and have fun.  Joining a support group can be very beneficial.  The local office of the National Parkinson Foundation has a list of support groups in one’s area.