P4P/ Pickleball for Parkinson’s


By Jane Delano Brown
Special Correspondent

By now, most everyone has heard of pickleball – the fast-growing paddle sport that resembles tennis but is played on a smaller court with a hollow ball. It’s become so popular that many of the tennis courts in town are now lined for pickleball and full of enthusiasts all day long.

You may not know that besides being fun, pickleball is therapeutic for people with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder that affects the nervous system and typically causes tremors, stiffness, and slowing of movement. Apparently, the activity and camaraderie of this new sport are good for the physical and mental health of people living with Parkinson’s.

Seeing a need to bring folks with Parkinson’s together on the court, Dennis Caren and Tom Cronley, a certified pickleball instructor, started the Pickleball for Parkinson’s (P4P) group here in Chapel Hill about five years ago. Ann Zellmer, who has been playing pickleball for 6-7 years, communicated with the growing list of players and their partners. Ann believes this is the only club like it in North Carolina.

Ray Parker, also a certified PPR (Professional Pickleball Registry) instructor, donates his time to help potential players learn the basics and get on the court as quickly as possible. He said his father-in-law had Parkinson’s disease and he wishes he’d had something like this group to help him stay active and engaged with others. Ray said, “I love helping folks get on the courts.”

One of the players waiting for a court recently said she’d been playing for five years. She said pickleball is “helpful for my brain as I have to make fast decisions, move quickly, and use my hands.” She also appreciates the support of the “group of really nice people who share their concerns” about living with Parkinson’s.

“And this group is very forgiving,” she said. “Look at how my hand shakes. So how good could I be?” A few minutes later she was out on the court where everyone was having a good time. 

A former nurse who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 14 years ago, has been playing for five years. She said she had been a runner previously but was “a horrible tennis player.” Now, she is hooked on pickleball. “I was pretty strong right away,” she said.

For the past couple of years the P4P group has enjoyed playing on the court available at the Seymour Center. Cronley said the Seymour Center has been “incredible” in providing their space. “They give us everything we ask for. No obstacles.”

This summer the group is happy to also be playing for free on two of the seven indoor courts in the new Pickles and Play pickleball membership club that opened in February. Jay Bircher, the COO and co-owner of Pickles and Play, is also a microbiologist working on gene therapy to address Parkinson’s. He said he’s glad to be able to provide the courts for the P4P players.

Bircher said the flooring of their facility is especially beneficial because the 9 mm of rubber under the surface reduces shock on the body by 35%. “From a health perspective, that’s definitely better than most courts,” he said. On this hot afternoon, the temperature-controlled atmosphere was also especially welcome.

The P4P group welcomes new players. Interested players may call Ann Zellmer (919-357-1794) or email [email protected]. She’ll also help set up a free private lesson to get a potential player started.

The court at the Seymour Center (2551 Homestead Road) is free for players with Parkinson’s on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 4 p.m.

The Pickles and Play courts (7310 Millhouse Rd.) are open this summer for Parkinson’s players without a membership on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m.

Cronley will also be teaching new Parkinson players and facilitating their games for free at the Passmore Center (103 Meadowlands Dr.) in Hillsborough on Tuesdays from 3:30-5 p.m.

Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.

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