UConn Health Holding First Interactive Patient Symposium During Parkinson’s Awareness Month

The Movement Disorders Center at UConn Health is hosting the first Interactive Patient Symposium for all patients and caregivers focusing on the importance of wellness in the lives of patients and their caregivers.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that is second most common to Alzheimer’s disease, and it affects over one million people in the United States. Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month is held in April to raise awareness about the disease. This April, the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at UConn Health is hosting the first Interactive Patient Symposium for all patients and caregivers and the 3rd Annual Parkinson’s Disease Symposium for health care professionals.

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. Symptoms usually begin gradually and worsen over time. As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking. Parkinson’s disease is a condition of adulthood, and most patients will develop symptoms after 60 years of age. Parkinson’s disease is thought to be caused by a blend of genetic and environmental factors leading to brain cell death, which is why it is classified as a neurodegenerative disease.

“When we can find out what causes Parkinson’s disease, it will lead to biomarkers, treatment and the potential cure of Parkinson’s disease,” says Bernardo Rodrigues, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at UConn Health.

Patients are typically diagnosed by a combination of tremors, stiffness and slow movements, but there are other areas that affect the patient as well. Diagnosis has become easier, faster and more accurate with advanced brain scans and even skin biopsy that looks at nerve fibers to help test for signs of Parkinson’s disease.

“The Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at UConn Health is a multidisciplinary center that focuses on the patient and the caregiver as Parkinson’s disease affects the nuclear family,” says Rodrigues. “Our academic center is unique because it integrates, teaching, research and patient care. As the home of the UConn School of Medicine, we offer a Neurology residency and a fellowship in Parkinson’s disease as we train the next generation of doctors to care for those with Parkinson’s disease.”

Treatments for Parkinson’s disease continue to evolve and provide improvement of quality of life, physical function, and extend life expectancy. Physical activity is found to slow down the progression of disease, so there is a focus and shift to include wellness and physical therapy, not simply medications, by looking at the whole body.

The patient symposium will focus on the importance of wellness in the lives of our patients and their caregivers.

“When people think about Parkinson’s disease, they often think about the physical parts: tremors, stiffness and slowness, but we often overlook unseen symptoms like insomnia, appetite loss, nausea, loss of sense of smell and taste, weight loss, as well as anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Chindhuri Selvadurai, assistant professor of Neurology at the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at UConn Health.

The interactive patient symposium on April 29th will offer four workshops around 30 minutes each that will focus on Tai Chi, Meditation, Art Therapy, and Life Stories through Journaling. These workshops will teach techniques that can be taken home and used to help patients and caregivers. There will also be a variety of vendors to share resources. The event is completely free for Parkinson’s disease patients and their families, is open to anyone in the community, and is not limited to UConn Health patients alone.

Tai Chi – Tom Atwood

Tom Atwood has been studying and teaching fall prevention and balance modalities for many years. Tai chi is a gentle exercise style that use movement and mindfulness to increase flexibility, improve balance and help walking. Tai Chi is effective in improving motor function in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease affects the muscles that control walking and movement. Those with Parkinson’s have a greater chance of falls. Through Tai Chi there is a lot of weight shifting and movement of the hips and joints that help with strengthening.

Atwood teaches an in-depth program focusing on strengthening and turning movements that push beyond stability and help with safety, balance and security, which can lead to the ability to be independent and function at a higher level. Atwood focuses on making patients aware of what they are capable of doing.

Parkinson movement is slow and small and tai chi helps make that movement large and fast. While most beneficial standing, it can also be done using a chair.

Tai chi helps you feel where you are by being rooted, by feeling the heel, ball and toe on the floor. For those with Parkinson’s its hard to know where the balls of the feet are. Tai Chi gives the ability to feel transition from heel to toe. The hips straighten out when the whole foot is on the floor.

Another benefit of Tai chi is the calming of the mind, using breathe as part of the inhale and exhalation during weight shifting, which helps to oxygenate blood and causes stress reduction.

During the workshop he will teach the importance of balance, and the basic movements and how to shift weight through Tai Chi.

Art Therapy – Mary Smeallie

In 2013, Mary Smeallie of West Hartford had a tremor in her right hand.  After seeing a neurologist, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “It was a devastating diagnosis,” says Smeallie, an artist who was teaching art at an elementary school at the time.

She started a boxing program that was a recommended exercise program specifically designed for those with Parkinson’s. This provides her with much needed physical, social and emotional benefits, but what would she do about the one thing she loved- her artwork.

She couldn’t imagine her life without art, but the tremors and stiffness in her right hand were making it more difficult to paint. So, she put her left hand to work. She gradually started painting with her left hand and actually feels her artwork is even better.

A vibrant spirit and zest for life and laughter keep Smeallie going each day. She teaches classes at the New Britain Museum of Art and continues to paint in her studio, Full Circle Studio at her home in West Hartford.

Smeallie will be teaching painting techniques and art therapy during the workshop.

Meditation – Dr. Matthew Raider

Dr. Matthew Raider has been studying and practicing meditation since the 1970s and has experienced the variety of physical and mental benefits for himself and his patients in his geriatric practice.

Meditation helps the mind shed unhealthy thought patterns and builds mental muscle that can make it easier to cope with the unpredictability of life with Parkinson’s disease. And, like regular physical activity, mindfulness meditation can serve as the cornerstone for self-care that people with Parkinson’s disease can use to manage their symptoms.

Raider, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s himself two years ago finds that meditation calms and relaxes, and data has shown a result in the effects on the stress hormone, cortisol.

There are only benefits to meditation, no downside, or negative side effects. Raider teaches meditation based on the needs of the patient and where they are and uses a silent meditation practice with no sensory input that provides deeper EEG states and helps shutting off the mind. During the workshop Raider will teach these mediation techniques.

Life Story Telling/Journaling – Juliette Shellman, Ph.D., RN, Associate Professor, University of Connecticut School of Nursing and Director the International Center for Life Story Innovations and Practice at UConn.

Juliette Shellman, Ph.D., RN, associate professor, University of Connecticut School of Nursing and Director the International Center for Life Story Innovations and Practice at UConn will be sharing the benefit and tools of life review and telling your life story.

The International Center for Life Story Innovations and Practice (ICLIP) brings together researchers, educators, practitioners, students, historians, and artists from around the world to promote the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities through written and oral narratives, personal histories, reminiscence, life review, autobiographical memory, and guided autobiographies.

Storytelling is shown to decrease depression and telling one’s story or journaling is a therapeutic way of expressing yourself. For some, storytelling and reminiscing provides the opportunity to leave a legacy by telling your life story. This process gives the opportunity to review your life and see your strengths, this can help identify your coping skills to help cope with the present.

While everyone has a different goal to their journaling, Shellman will provide a brief introduction to writing, talk about the experience with Parkinson’s and a structured process to help start the writing process.

Those with Parkinson’s who have difficulty with writing will also be introduced to technology resources that will help tell the story without the need for pen and paper.

The event will take place on Saturday, April 29, 2023, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Academic Rotunda, UConn Health. Registration is required and space is limited.

If you have any questions or need additional information, please contact Karen Mendoza, Administrative Program Assistant II, at parkinsons@uchc.edu.