Dr. Graham Hughes is a geriatrician at St. Vincent’s University Hospital here in Dublin, so you might say he knows a bit about what it means to enter into the late(r) stages of life. Actually, the title to today’s blog is all his.
I’ll explain in a bit. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that there has been a patient presence around the MDS Congress this year. Yesterday was Patient Empowerment Day at the Irish national rugby stadium, and on Sunday, more than 800 attended a National Patient Conference put on by the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland.
Dr. Hughes addressed this conference, and today’s blog title was actually the title of his presentation. What does it mean? “Growing older is a process, not a destination,” he explains. And it’s about playing an active role in that process.
Here, Dr. Hughes shares with us some wisdom about how people with Parkinson’s can proactively drive that process forward, toward living a realistic, yet full life, well into their golden years.
MJFF: You shared a poignant quote with us on Sunday from the golfing great Jack Nicklaus. Can you explain what his golf game could mean to those who might be growing old(er) with Parkinson’s disease (PD)?
GH: When Jack was nearing the end of his career, he famously said, ‘I want to play like me, but I can’t play like me anymore.’ But the thing is, he could still play, he just had to realize that he wasn’t going to play the same way. Jack needed to have the wisdom to adapt his game to coincide with what he could do. And in the end, you know what? He was still pretty darn good.
In the same way, all of us that grow older, especially those with PD, need to have the wisdom to adapt our lifestyles so that we can still be active, even if it means being active in new ways.
MJFF: As you well know, many with Parkinson’s struggle with being active, in terms of how they move around throughout the day, but also, many struggle with cognitive decline brought on by the disease. How can people with PD adapt these challenges into a more active lifestyle?
GH: When I talk about adapting to be more active, I’m speaking to being active physically, intellectually, creatively, and socially. Certainly, people with PD should get out and exercise to the extent that they can, from physiotherapy, to dance, to more vigorous exercise, depending on what they have the ability to do. Of course, any kind of exercise regimen should be discussed with their physician.
Intellectually, I tell my patients to stay engaged in things that they have always done, to the extent that they can. Continue to pay those bills that you have always paid, but don’t be afraid to ask for help if need be. But stay engaged in these tasks – they keep your mind working, and by staying engaged, you’re likely to feel better about what you can do, and this can translate to taking care of other tasks throughout the day. Quizzes and crosswords and other word games are always great to do if you enjoy them. There’s evidence out there that they could be protective against cognitive decline.
Creativity is a part of who we are. Part of what we nurture, and it can really help to sustain us in challenging times. People with PD should stay engaged in those creative projects they always have – and there’s a lot of research out there suggesting that the arts, and in particular, music, is good for the brain. And it’s good for the spirit too. Finally, people with PD have a tendency to stay isolated due to problems with speech, anxiety, and some of the motor symptoms of the disease. It’s crucial, however, that they look to maintain these relationships. As we adapt to a changing lifestyle, those in our community will similarly adapt.
MJFF: Can you give an example of how to do this?
GH: Sure. There’s a gentleman with Parkinson’s that has been attending the Wimbledon tennis championships for the past 20-25 years, always by himself. This past year, he realized that it was going to be difficult for him to attend because the symptoms of his disease. So rather than ending the tradition, something he truly loves, he was willing to bring along someone to help him get around. So he’s still doing what he always has done, but adapting.
His story reminds me of a quote from another elder statesman, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, you know, that school for Wizards in the Harry Potter movies. Dumbledore, played by the late great Richard Harris, sums up nicely how I think people with PD can proactively think about growing older: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”