Pummeling Parkinson’s: Group of women at Y forms tight bonds as those with disease seek to slow disease’s march

WESTERLY — For 66-year-old Kate Robins of Pawcatuck, jumping through hoops has become a form of therapy.

That’s why the retired public relations consultant and married mother of two adult children gets herself to the Ocean Community YMCA’s Westerly branch several times a week for a class run by longtime local fitness expert Polly Chorlton.

Robins is one of roughly a million people in the United States living with Parkinson’s disease, a number, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation, that’s expected to rise to 1.2 million by 2030.

“Research clearly shows that regular exercise is associated with slower declines in mobility and yields many benefits for people living with Parkinson’s disease,” said Lisa Hoffman, director of professional education at the Parkinson’s Foundation in an article published in June.

“I really want to work hard now so I don’t kick myself ten years from now,” said Robins. “So I push myself.”

“Parkinson’s is a progressive disease,” she said. “Exercise slows the progression.”

With the goal of keeping her disease’s symptoms at bay, Robins faithfully attends Chorlton’s “Punch Back at Parkinson’s” class, which is held each Monday and Friday morning and conducted in circuit style, with various stations designed to address balance, posture, strength, agility and flexibility. Participants spend time at each station — bouncing, pulling, kicking or stretching — before moving on to the next station.

“Each station does something different for balance or strength,” said Chorlton on a recent Monday morning, as she walked around a spacious classroom wearing a timer around her neck and gently offering guidance to her students. “The exercises are designed to use both sides of the brain at the same time.” 

Having Parkinson’s and learning how to best deal with it “is a journey,” Chorlton said, as she looked around the room at her busy students.

“They’re all incredible people,” she said with a smile. “Everyone participates at their own ability.

“I even get them to sing,” Chorlton said, noting that Parkinson’s can affect the ability to vocalize. “They make me smile.”

The class also involves stretching for increased range of motion and footwork and agility drills.

Chorlton also teaches a class called “Pedaling 4 Parkinson’s” every Wednesday from 10:15 to 11 a.m. in the Y’s Spin Studio.

The Y also offers a program called “A Matter of Balance,” an award-winning program designed to reduce the fear of falling and increase the activity levels of older adults who have concerns about falls.

“Ok, next station,” Chorlton called out as the participants switched up their exercise stations. “Kate, those rings are calling your name today.”

Robins, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in November of 2022, called Chorlton a “great motivator.”

“Polly really knows how to motivate us,” said Robins. “Exercise is so important.”

“Polly does a wonderful job,” said 77-year-old Susie Storrs of Charlestown who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2009. “She’s knowledgeable about physical problems and she gives specific exercises to us, which is very helpful.”

“Polly takes a personal interest,” said Deborah Edwards whose husband, Len, 74, has been attending Chorlton’s classes regularly since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s six years ago. “She’s been instrumental in the expansion of the program.”

“Polly’s been doing the class since before I arrived,” said Janine Parkins, the health and wellness director at the Y’s Westerly branch. “It was very exciting when we received a grant to get more speeds bags and other tools.

“It’s really inspiring to watch the participants pushing back. Kate is wonderful and has a really good outlook.”

Robins credits her husband of 33 years, Tom Verde, with discovering the program at the Y.

“He goes to the library for everything,” said Robins, who works at a garden center five days a week. “One day he came home with the brochure.”

“Now he packs me up and sends me off to the Y,” she said with a laugh. “He says I’m going to Parkinson’s camp.”

Verde, a freelance writer, said as he learns more and more about the disease he’s become curious about its causes and why it seems to affect more men than women.

Parkinson’s disease, the second-most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease, is a progressive neurological disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Scientists also believe there is a genetic component to the disease.

While no two people experience Parkinson’s the same way, according to experts, there are some commonalities.

An extremely diverse disorder, scientists believe a combination of genetic and environmental factors are the cause of Parkinson’s disease, a term used to describe a collection of movement symptoms that include slowness, stiffness, tremor, and balance issues, according to the foundation.

While most people with “typical” Parkinson’s develop symptoms at age 50 or older, “Young-onset Parkinson’s” can occur in younger people.

Actor Michael J. Fox, for instance, was 29 when he was diagnosed in 1991. Although he kept it under wraps for several years, Fox publicly disclosed his illness in 2000. In 2000, he launched the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, which the New York Times has called “the most credible voice on Parkinson’s research in the world.”  

“Our Foundation exists for one reason,” Fox states on the foundation website, “to speed breakthroughs patients can feel in their everyday lives.”

Because male participants outnumber female participants in Chorlton’s classes, the women have formed a support group and meet regularly, usually at Nana’s, a café down the street from the Y.

“It is very helpful,” said Robins. “Sometimes with this disease you can get a case of the ‘I don’t wannas’ or the ‘I’m not gonnas,’ but if you know that others are going to show up at class it helps.

“There is sort of a tacit agreement that if others are going to make the effort, you’re going to go to class too. We’ve become a pretty tight bunch.”

“I think it’s so important to reach out to others,” said Storrs, “but you have to want to and you have to be ready. It took me five years to be ready.”

Robins, who has served on a number of nonprofit boards in the region over the years, is enrolled in a landmark Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative study at Yale. The worldwide study is sponsored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Robins said, which she believes holds great promise.

The study, according to the Fox foundation, has 33 clinical sites in 11 countries, and 1,400 participants who “have contributed data and biosamples to the most robust Parkinson’s database and specimen bank ever created.”

The field also is closer than ever to arriving at therapies that can treat all the symptoms of Parkinson’s, “including the less well understood non-motor aspects, such as cognitive impairment and mood disorders, sleeping and digestive issues, and speech and swallowing difficulties,” according to a posting on the foundation’s website. 

“They bring all their technology and wisdom to bear. Now we watch to see how the disease progresses,” Robins said. “”There are so many people working so hard. I really am confident they’ll get somewhere with it.

“I am encouraged. It’s comforting to know there’s something you can do.”

For more information about the YMCA classes, visit, https://oceancommunityymca.org/westerly-pawcatuck-branch/

For information about Parkinson’s disease, visit https://www.parkinson.org/

For information about the Michael J. Fox Foundation, visit https://www.michaeljfox.org/


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