Helping Parkinson’s Sufferers

by April Durrett on May 01, 2008

Inspire the World to Fitness®

Through land and water exercise, IDEA member Kathi Sims provides physical and social support for people living with Parkinson’s disease.

For Kathi Sims, RN, fitness has always been a way of life. While she was working as a registered nurse in Chatham, Ontario, she began teaching early-morning, evening and Saturday exercise classes. What was a part-time passion turned into her main focus when she and her husband retired to Sarasota, Florida.

“My business, Holistic Wellness, is so named because my nursing background was in outpatient psychiatry and mental health,” she says. “It was a perfect fit with what I was doing in fitness. My goal is to help individuals seek total wellness, which encompasses not only physical fitness, but also mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellness.”

In addition to teaching water fitness classes and balance classes on land for healthy adults, she also specializes in programs for individuals living with the challenges of Parkinson’s disease.

People With Parkinson’s in the Pool

Sims teaches two 45-minute water fitness classes a week—geared for people who have Parkinson’s disease—at the Rehabil­itation & Sports Medicine Center, which is part of Manatee Memorial Hospital in Bradenton, Florida.

“The pool classes help people with the specific symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” explains Sims. “Since mobility and balance are major issues for this group, I focus a lot on gait training and balance. I also concentrate on upper- and lower-body strengthening, flexibility and cardiorespiratory strengthening. My greatest challenge comes from the fact that I have people in the class who are at every stage of the disease, from early onset to the later stages, and so many of my participants require extra assistance and support. I wouldn’t be able to teach the classes without the help of volunteers and participants’ spouses.”

While her classes are certainly inspiring the world to fitness, they are also providing an important social aspect for the participants. “They are comfortable being with others who experience the same challenges that they do,” she explains. “They are very close as a group. I had one man in the latter stages of the disease who, even on his worse days, would have his wife bring him to the pool in his wheelchair. Sometimes he would have to be chair-lifted into the pool and the best he could do was float around on a noodle. On those days he became the ‘supervisor’ and would encourage others to ‘keep moving.’ Sadly, he passed away a few months ago, and this has left a real void in our classes.”

In addition to the two Parkinson’s pool classes a week that Sims teaches, she also instructs one land class a week for this population. Sims also provides personal training for interested participants in their home pools. “Working one-on-one allows me to get to know a client’s family and provide assistance and support to them, to personalize the exercise program and to better meet participants’ individual needs,” she says.

A Passion to Make a Difference

Part of the reason Sims was motivated to work with people who have Parkin­son’s disease is that her husband’s father and maternal grandmother both had the disease. “My clients really inspire me,” she says. “This is such a life-changing disease, and I am constantly amazed at the optimism these people have. Certainly they get frustrated and depressed because of their inability to do what they could once do, but they push on. They work hard and have a strong desire to keep doing as much as they can. And they all seem to have such a great sense of humor.”

While Sims has benefited from teaching the class, her students have benefited as well. “On a regular basis, participants report improvements they make in terms of mobility and general functioning,” she says. “One of the spouses wrote to me, ‘Since my husband started this program, I have noticed so many improvements in his daily activities and his desire to stay busy. Before we started with this group, I had to dress him and help feed him. I no longer have to help him with either activity. He really enjoys the friendships he has developed with the other Parkinson’s people who have the same limited activity level he has.’”

Sims encourages other fitness pros to work with this population. If interested, she advises them to learn all about the disease from a medical standpoint so they will know how it affects an individual’s functioning and the challenges it presents. (Sims herself is a medical exercise specialist, certified movement disorder instructor and certified water fitness instructor, in addition to being a registered nurse.) “You will have to adjust your expectations when you are working with these clients,” she explains. “They may not be able to do everything you would want them to do. Functioning ability can change from class to class and perhaps even within a class, so you must be patient and flexible. Because Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease, you will be helping people with declining abilities. The challenges are great when working with this population, but the rewards are much greater.”

April Durrett is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal.

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About the Author

April Durrett

April Durrett IDEA Author/Presenter

April Durrett is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal.