Students, Parkinson’s patients enjoy a moving experience

Students and Parkinson’s disease patients pass balls in a circle.

On a recent Wednesday evening, a group of individuals gather to sing and move to old-time favorites such as “My Bonnie,” “Home on the Range,” “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” This is no ordinary group of steppers, however: They are DMU clinical students and individuals with Parkinson’s disease who have come together weekly during the spring for the benefits of each other’s company.

For the patients, “there is solid scientific evidence indicating that music and dance can get people with Parkinson’s disease moving better and improve their quality of life,” says Carolyn Weber, a second-year physical therapy student who led part of the sessions with classmate Maria Gannon. “Parkinson’s disease impairs parts of the brain that control the selection of movement patterns needed for everyday activities that most of us take for granted, like walking. But music enters the brain via pathways that are not impaired by the disease and serves as an important signal to the brain to initiate movement patterns. In other words, music allows us to kind of hack into the brain. And with repeated hacking, people with Parkinson’s can get better at moving.”

The benefits go far beyond the physical. “This makes me feel good about myself – it makes me feel normal,” says Jim Cline, a Parkinson’s patient who’s participated in the weekly sessions.

Music therapist Laura Helm leads the group in the “Hokey-Pokey.”

The DMU students also benefit. “As first-year students, we don’t get to work much with patients,” says Britney Williams, a student in the University’s doctor of physical therapy program. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. It’s nice that this isn’t in a sterile environment; it’s a real-life setting and a way to connect with people.”

The dance program was organized and funded by the American Parkinson Disease Association-Iowa Chapter, which provides patient services and educational programs and helps to elevate public awareness about the disease. APDA employee Becky Robel created the program, and Kristin Lowry, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical therapy at DMU, is a member of the chapter’s board.

The latest session began with participants engaged in seated exercises led by board-certified music therapist Laura Helm of Music Speaks, an organization that provides music therapy to enhance the health, function and well-being of clients across Iowa. She sang and played her guitar as attendees stretched, twisted and did leg lifts to songs such as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Sioux City Sue.” The group then gathered in a large circle, passing bouncy balls around and then doing the “Hokey-Pokey.” Many participants sang along, and laughter frequently broke out.

DMU student Katherine Ternent and Jim Cline practice their box-step.

Students and patients then paired up to dance. Jim Cline practiced box-stepping with Katherine Ternent, a podiatric medical student.

“The students are so nice,” he says. A Vietnam War veteran and former police officer, he adds: “And that’s quite a compliment coming from me.”

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