Program gives Parkinson’s patients newfound life with movement, music

Video by Ron Bend. Downloadable version on Vimeo:

During a recent Moving Through Parkinson’s session at the Colorado State University Health and Medical Center, after two music therapy students finished a rendition of Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” on guitar and bongos, instructor Lisa Morgan asked the older adults what the song reminded them of.

One woman said high school. Then one of the men said, with a smile, “The back seat of my car.”

Participants movingIt’s Parkinson’s Awareness Month, and the group has gathered in the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging to attend a class that combines movement, dance, live music, socializing — and even a bit of singing along to a favorite oldie. Selections have included Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” and The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”

The collaborative program allows CSU faculty and students to provide multiple levels of physical and emotional stimulation for local residents living with Parkinson’s disease. The classes are supported in part by the Parkinson’s Support Group in Larimer County. Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement, so physical activity is the primary focus of the class.

“That’s the key to this disease, it’s movement,” says participant Cindy Elliott. “If you don’t move, you’ve lost. I think the movement and music work hand in hand — it’s a confidence-builder. Plus, it’s a way to interact with this great group.”

Student musiciansThe movements

Morgan, an adjunct dance instructor in CSU’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, leads the group in small motor tasks to more integrated, full-body movements, including simple dance steps, all in time to the music. The CSU students, with the guidance of their music therapy instructor Kyle Wilhelm, allow Morgan to set the tempo of their songs, but it’s obvious that the musicians and participants feed off each other.

“When we pick up on them having fun, it makes us feel good too,” says music therapy student Femke Verbeeck, who is performing for the class to fulfill her second required practicum in the program. “It validates why I’m getting my degree in music therapy. This is what I was meant to do.”

“Live music provides flexibility that recordings don’t,” adds fellow music therapy student Kimberly Woodman, who’s getting real-life experience for her future career. “To me this is the meat and potatoes of the music therapy program. This is where you apply what you’ve learned in the classroom.”

In addition, Verbeeck and Woodman each follow one selected participant and track how music affects the participant’s movements. CSU students from other disciplines, including human development and family studies as well as dance, are volunteering or getting practicum experience, seeing how movement and music can enrich lives.

For some of the participants, the class represents a rebirth.

“It’s given me my life back,” says participant Billie Pawlikowski, who spent so much time sitting when she was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s that she couldn’t stand up without assistance — until she started taking the CSU class. “We inspire each other. You can stand alone in your room and dance to the Bee Gees, but it’s better with five or 10 people.”

Participants moving‘Oiling the joints’

Morgan says many of the movements are designed to simulate everyday situations that the participants might encounter, like picking something up off the floor or preventing a fall. She aims to improve balance and coordination, combat rigidity, build strength and provide flexibility. Sometimes incorporating various props, Morgan also works on things like gait, hand-eye coordination and peripheral vision.

“It’s like oiling the joints,” says participant Susan Coulter. “For me, it’s the combination of socialization, movement and music. It’s synergistic help.”

“It’s all interconnected,” Wilhelm explains.

“Plus, when they start singing, it takes it to a whole other level,” Morgan adds. “Multitasking promotes neuroplasticity, or rerouting the information in the brain. Moving/dancing to live music, with the addition of singing along, is not only therapeutic and healing but fun and socially engaging.”

“And they’re doing it together,” Wilhelm replies. “They’re enjoying a better quality of life.”

Note to journalists: Media are welcome to attend any of the next three Moving Through Parkinson’s classes, which meet from 2:15 to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging, located in the northwest corner of the CSU Health and Medical Center at 151 W. Lake St. in Fort Collins.