Caring Currents

New Parkinson's Program Offers Up 3 Good Sources of Hope

Last updated: Feb 05, 2009

Michael J. Fox
Image by Alan Light used under the creative commons attribution license.

Most headlines the average person reads about progress against Parkinson's Disease tend to concern embryonic stem-cell research, promising drug or gene therapies, or the prodigious fundraising efforts of actor Michael J. Fox.

Last night, though, I watched a don't-miss documentary on Parkinson's that, yes, illuminated all these influential angles -- and then gave something more: Without lecturing, it nicely hammered home some great use-it-right-now information.

"My Father, My Brother, and Me," on PBS's Frontline, was created by journalist Dave Iverson. It's his father, his brother, and, since 2004, Iverson himself who have the disease.  So you get a very humanized, up-close portrait of what's known/guessed/not known about this debilitating neurodegenerative condition.

Whether they were intentional or not, there are three takeaway messages I loved:

1. Move as much as you can.

You can't watch this program without wanting to make a late new-year's resolution to exercise more, whether Parkinson's (or another neurological disorder, for that matter) is in your life or not. Through interviews with researchers and really likeable victims, Iverson makes a compelling case that the brain needs physical activity (exercise, physical therapy, dance, stretching, movement to music, any kind of movement).

For someone with Parkinson's, exercise seems to support growth-factors needed to enhance cell function in the brain. ("Like fertilizer for your lawn," one researcher says.)

2. Don't hide, confide -- and connect.

I kept feeling startled to remember that the smiling, curious guy talking to scientists and watching therapy sessions actually has this disease himself. Like actor-advocate Fox, Iverson's matter-of-fact, out-there attitude alone is a great reminder that plainly facing a challenge is always the best first-step. Once you start talking about a diagnosis, you can connect with relevant others. There's a healing camaraderie in participating in various therapies and classes.

In the comments section on the PBS website, someone writes about being "ashamed" to admit they have tremors. "You're to be applauded for reaching out. So please don't feel any shame about telling your story," Iverson so rightly responded.

3. Keep flexible (even as your flexibility is threatened).

That's advice for sufferers, their spouses, and their children. Medication dosages change. Abilities decline. Memory eventually may go on the fritz. "Parkinson's requires an ability to shift and adapt," Iverson says. (The specific challenges of caregivers were beyond the scope of this documentary, but they deserve a full sequel.)

"Believe in those friends and family who continue to believe in you," says his older brother. And speaking of sunny-side caregivers, their mom --  who cared for her late husband and now sees two afflicted grown sons – winds up the program with a marvelously upbeat star turn. I'll let you catch that part for yourself.

The entire documentary is online , as are supplementary interviews with PD-sufferers Fox and writer Michael Kinsley, Parkinson's Institute founder Bill Langston, and columnist Charles Krauthammer (who has a spinal cord injury).