6 Fun Activities to Help Seniors with Parkinson's Stay Healthy

Seniors singing in choir

About one million Americans live with Parkinson’s disease, a condition that affects the brain’s nerve cells and affects movement and coordination. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, but treatment can slow its progression and reduce symptoms like tremors, stiffness and balance problems.

Both early on and as the condition progresses, it’s important for the person with Parkinson’s to continue doing things that he or she can and take time to be with family and friends.

“We have found that Parkinson’s can be an isolating disease and people’s worlds get smaller as their functional ability changes,” said Amy Lemen, research assistant professor of neurology and medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. “We encourage people at all stages of Parkinson’s to exercise and take part in social activities.”

The following are six fun activities to help your loved one with Parkinson’s stay physically and mentally healthy.

1. Play catch to benefit the brain

You may not think playing catch can slow the progression of Parkinson’s, but Jackie Russell, co-founder of OhioHealth Delay the Disease, a wellness program for people with Parkinson's, said a growing amount of research shows it may.

The idea behind this is that a game of catch can improve neuroplasticity, since working the brain in new ways forms healthy nerves and connections. This helps make up for areas of the brain that are injured or diseased.

Your loved one will get the biggest benefit from this exercise by simultaneously moving and thinking, Russell said. Increasing their heart rate primes the brain to learn, so they should work on tasks that have become difficult.

For instance, if memory is an issue, each time they catch the ball, your loved one can try naming a month or a color before throwing it back to their partner. If movement is an issue, ask them to try to lift off only their thumb or pinky finger after catching, before throwing the ball back.

2. Sing a song to strengthen the voice

Parkinson’s disease can affect any muscle in the body, including those related to speech. Over time, the person’s voice can become softer, slowly reducing his or her volume.

One way to help remedy this is by singing, which helps strengthen the voice’s quality, clarity and reduce vocal tremors. Lemen says someone with Parkinson's will get the best results if he or she treats singing like exercise – aiming to sing daily, or for at least an hour three to four times a week. Singing loudly will help them retain volume.

The best part is that this “exercise” doesn’t have to be work. Encourage your loved one to join a choir or sing karaoke -- these activities not only help their voice but get them out of the house and socializing with others who also love music.

3. Take a walk to exercise motor abilities

You've likely heard it before -- walking is one of the best ways to get exercise. But instead of hopping on a treadmill, help your loved one turn walks into social activities. You can help them sneak in walking by, say, hiking together, antiquing or going to museums or garage sales.

Since falls are common among people with Parkinson’s, you'll want to make sure your loved one isn't pushing too hard. Rajesh Pahwa, director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorder Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said you can’t predict a fall. To help your older adult avoid falls, remind them to not multitask – try not to talk a lot or carry something while walking.

Older people with Parkinson’s can also get in walking by incorporating it into daily routines. For instance, if they ride the bus or take the subway, see if they can get off one stop before their usual stop and walk the rest of the way. Park farther out when you go to the store with them or make it a rule to take stairs instead of elevators or escalators when you’re out together.

“There is evidence that exercise really does help Parkinson’s in a variety of ways including improving motor and nonmotor symptoms” Lemen said. “And it helps adapt to living with the disease over time.”

4. Play games for better short-term memory

If you and the person you are caring for like to play games, it can be fun and therapeutic. Just remember a couple of notes to make sure these activities are both enjoyable and challenging.

Nearly any game that requires some thought is good for cognition – puzzles, chess, Sudoku, computer games are all great examples. But Russell recommends switching things up now and again. Once you become really good at something and it’s not a challenge, it doesn’t necessarily offer as many cognitive benefits.

“You need something that makes you think in new ways because that’s part of the magic; that’s what helps you think more clearly and improve short-term memory,” she said.

That said, in advanced stages of the disease, Pahwa notes that it’s good to do things that aren’t too complex. The games need to be at a level your older adult can manage. “As you are progressing, you may need to go to simpler puzzles and things so you are not making it too difficult,” he said. “It’s important to keep doing this stuff but not push to the point of frustration because you won’t keep doing it.”

5. Try Reiki for positive healing

Though there is little research showing that integrative, or “natural” treatments can help diminish Parkinson’s symptoms, Lemen said she has plenty of anecdotal evidence that bears this out.

The important thing is to have as many tools in your caregiving toolbox as possible which may include things like meditation, acupuncture or massage. One she sees many patients use is Reiki.

Reiki is a type of Eastern complementary medicine based on the concept that energy can support the body’s own healing abilities. During the treatment, a practitioner will place his hands on or just above you to create positive, healing energy in particular areas of the body. It is often used to help reduce pain, anxiety and depression.

Lemen said she has heard from patients that it can help manage the mental health issues that can come with Parkinson’s for both patients and caregivers.

6. Help your loved one get involved with their community

If your loved one was diagnosed with Parkinson’s right around the age of retirement, volunteering could be a great option for them to help prevent isolation and loneliness.

If you or your loved one already has a favorite charity, you can ask if they need help. If you're not sure where to start, local senior centers can get you plugged in where there are needs in the community. These organizations can help find ways for your loved one to contribute, even if their mobility is becoming limited.

Lemen also recommends getting involved in the Parkinson’s community. There is a tremendous need, she said, for patients and caregivers to be involved in research or to educate others about Parkinson’s. You can find out more information by contacting your local physicians or the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

“Parkinson's can be about loss, but we want to help people regain a sense of what is possible,” Lemen said. “I have seen thousands of people really adapt and learn they can live well with Parkinson’s disease and build a good life.”