Youville offers Parkinson's support for residents and the outside community

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One of the most frustrating symptoms of Parkinson's disease is known as "freezing," a condition in which people literally can't take their next step forward. Imagine walking to the corner store when your feet, without warning, feel like they have become rooted in the ground. Getting out of freezing can require considerable effort, but one thing that often helps is rhythmic, auditory cues, provided by a companion.

Rhythmic and musical activities have recently emerged as popular complementary therapies for treating Parkinson's symptoms. Studies have shown that dance classes with musical accompaniment can help people recover mind-body coordination, leading to smoother, more fluid movements. Some types of musical activity can also help with non-motor symptoms. At Youville House Assisted Living in Cambridge, residents with Parkinson's disease are taking part in a therapeutic singing group called The Crescendo Chorus. The group meets for weekly practice sessions, led by a trained neurologic music therapist. The singing sessions help participants overcome vocal problems, such as low speech volume, problems with articulation and difficulty swallowing, all of which are common, non-motor Parkinson's symptoms. In addition, participants benefit from the socialization and improved morale that comes with being in a supportive group.

Caitlin Hebb, a neurologic music therapist who organizes the Crescendo Chorus, will discuss the benefits of singing at the 2022 Youville Parkinson's Conference on Friday, Nov. 4, at Youville House (1573 Cambridge Street, Cambridge). The conference is intended to educate and support the greater community about Parkinson's disease, its impact, potential treatments, and recent research. Dr. Bruno Benitez, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, will deliver the keynote presentation at 8:00 a.m. about his research into genetics, biomarkers, and potential targets for a cure.

An Overview of Parkinson's

Parkinson's is a progressive neurological disease caused by the loss of nerve cells in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra. This loss of cells results in a decrease in the production of dopamine. Without adequate dopamine, the brain loses its ability to control muscles and regulate movement. Parkinson's affects one million Americans and around 10 million people worldwide.

Unfortunately there are few known risk factors. Age plays a role, with most people contracting the disease in their 60s or older, although some people contract it at a younger age. Males are slightly more likely to have Parkinson's than females, and there is some evidence of genetic risk factors. Exposure to a toxic commercial pesticide called paraquat was recently linked to Parkinson's; the chemical has been banned in many countries as a result (though it is still legal in the United States). Otherwise, little is known about what causes the disease or how we can prevent it.

Symptoms vary and can be difficult to recognize. In the early stages, they can be too mild to notice, and even after they progress they can be confused with other conditions. Symptoms can be treated and alleviated through medication, group support, specialized physical therapy, and a variety of exercises.

-- Tremor: Approximately 70 percent of people first experience slight shaking in a hand or finger on one side of the body. The tremor may eventually spread to both sides of the body.

-- Slowed movement: Movements that were once automatic, such as taking a step forward, getting dressed, or even smiling become more difficult.

-- Festination: This is characterized by quick, short, shuffling steps.

-- Rigidity: Muscles can stiffen and become difficult to move.

-- Postural instability: Loss of control over muscle movement leads to a lack of balance and an increased risk for falls. Physical exercises that strengthen muscles and improve balance are recommended.

-- Speech Problems: Neurological changes in the brain make it difficult to speak loudly, to intonate, and to articulate words clearly. Speech therapy and group singing can help Parkinson's patients improve speech.

Anyone with a Parkinson's diagnosis is invited to attend Parkinson's Support Group meetings at Youville House in Cambridge, held every second Thursday of the month at 3:00 p.m. Participants benefit from the opportunity to establish a network, share information, and process their experiences with peers who understand what it's like to have Parkinson's disease. This can have an enormous impact on morale and emotional wellness. The next Support Group meeting is Thursday, Nov. 10, at 3:00 p.m. Youville House is located at 1573 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA.

To learn more about Parkinson's support, the Parkinson's Conference, or the Crescendo Chorus at Youville, contact Yanira Burgos, director of community relations, at 617-491-1234 or email