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Vancouver class helps patients deal with Parkinson’s disease, build a community

Fifteen people sit in a circle around Laura Lou Pape-McCarthy on Wednesday in the Fur Willow Room at PeaceHealth’s campus off Main Street in Vancouver.

The group follows Pape-McCarthy’s lead as she teaches a Parkinson’s Disease Movement Class, which combines aspects of yoga, dance, theater and tai chi. Throughout the 90-minute class, participants stomp their feet, yell out their names, wiggle and shrug their shoulders, stretch and do lots of laughing — some real and some exaggerated; some purposeful and some incidental; some small and some big, full belly laughs.

“I’m starting to feel it in my cheeks. You guys are making me grin so much,” Pape-McCarthy tells the group.

The focus of the weekly seated movement class is to improve flexibility, strength, balance and coordination for those with Parkinson’s, a disease of the central nervous system that affects movement and frequently includes tremors. The class draws from The John Argue Method, which was created by Parkinson’s movement instructor and author John Argue.

Pape-McCarthy said the class helps enhance body awareness, which is important because Parkinson’s interferes with the communication between the brain and body. As she puts it, “You have to learn new ways to notice there’s something going on when something is.”

Arlin Brown, 71, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 10 years ago. He grew up playing basketball and football, and he spent four years in the U.S. Navy. He belongs to Rocksteady Boxing, a nonprofit organization that offers a noncontact boxing-based curriculum for people with Parkinson’s. Wednesday’s class was the second one for Brown. He said it’s important to remain active.

“I’m using other parts of the body that I’m not used to,” Brown said.

While the class works on physical abilities, Pape-McCarthy, who has taught the class since 2013, said she also likes to emphasize laughter and joy.

“It’s vitally important for people with chronic illnesses to have some playfulness in their lives,” she said. “To have a place where it’s OK to just be a goof and not worry about any wrong impressions — or actually even having to be funny.”

Mary Jane Campbell, 72, attended Wednesday’s class with her husband, Gregory, 73, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s two years ago. Campbell has arthritis in a thumb, and said some of the hand movements have even helped her arthritis. She also said the class is a great connector for people and has helped her and her husband develop a Parkinson’s community. It’s an upbeat environment.

“The laughter, everybody needs that. I think everybody that is here goes away feeling better,” Campbell said.

The class closes by humming the tune of “You Are My Sunshine,” and saying one thing about themselves out loud. Before they leave, Pape-McCarthy asks everyone to reflect on the playfulness and joy of the group.

“That feeling is there for you when you need it,” she says.


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