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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Despite Parkinson’s diagnosis, Spokane man advances from walker to walking after focused classes

Dick Pruett could be a poster boy promoting how seniors can reduce the risks of falling.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008, Pruett calls that condition “the enemy.” He believes it’s best to fight back with activity to improve muscle strength, flexibility and balance – also among strategies to reduce falls.

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder that predominantly affects the dopamine-producing neurons in a specific area of the brain and can cause gait and balance issues, along with tremors and limb stiffness. The progression of symptoms can differ, but Pruett said the disease began to affect his balance and caused tremors.

The battle requires a mindset to avoid sitting still, he said.

“Sitting around and doing nothing don’t work,” said Pruett, 76, who entered fitness classes at Touchmark on South Hill after he and his wife moved there in 2022.

In taking its “Parkinson’s Move & Shout” sessions and another class called “FunFlex,” Pruett went from using a walker to relying on two trekking poles. Then, after nearly two months of such classes, he advanced to walking around the grounds unassisted.

“I started the Parkinson’s class after I’d been here less than a month,” he said. “Part of the reason I came here in the first place is that they know about Parkinson’s and have these classes, so I thought I better get on the stick.”

He’ll likely be in another upcoming session, Touchmark’s fall prevention class, a fee-based one that’s also open to the public. Additionally, Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington offers a series of free fall-prevention classes called “A Matter of Balance” at various locations.

Jarod King, Touchmark health and fitness manager, said Parkinson’s can cause people “to get really tight,” so classes include participants doing big moves for flexibility and range of motion. FunFlex has people working on balance, mobility and large motions.

The Parkinson’s class also includes voice exercises, because the disease can diminish vocal strength. Pruett agreed. He used to sing regularly in a church choir.

“Parkinson’s is trying to rob you not just of your motor skills but your voice, too,” Pruett said. “It’s a challenge to carry on a normal conversation.”

Today, Pruett regularly gets around walking on his own in his apartment, inside the Touchmark facility and outside on its grounds. Sometimes, the destination matters, he joked.

“It helps you get to the dining room faster if you don’t have a walker.”

He took a dopamine replacement medication. A few years ago, a symptom developed called dyskinesia, which for Pruett meant swaying at the trunk. To avoid adding medication for that, he was a candidate for deep brain stimulation via a surgical implant.

That required him to have three surgeries beginning in fall 2021 and into early 2022.

In surgery, electrodes are inserted into a targeted area of the brain, using magnetic resonance imaging, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Another procedure implants an impulse generator battery, similar to a heart pacemaker.

The battery device is placed under the collarbone or in the abdomen and delivers an electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement.

It took a while to recover from those surgeries, so Pruett said he had to rely on the use of a walker at first.

Pruett said before moving to Spokane, and after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, he had three falls. He considers himself fortunate he wasn’t injured but understands the fear. After taking the Touchmark classes, Pruett said he now feels more confident moving around.

“After a while, I only needed one pole. I still use one on occasion, if I go somewhere where I’m not certain how level the ground is, because falling is still an issue.”

Falls can result in broken bones, hospital stays or worse.

Spokane County had 10,000 fall-related medical calls in 2022, said Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington.

Over 14 million people in the U.S. – or one in four adults 65 and over – report falling every year, and falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths for older Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But seniors can work to reduce those risks, Pruett said.

“I try to do as much exercise as I can, and to stick with the program,” Pruett said. “They have gait exercises that teach you to take big steps, and we do things that are designed to help Parkinson’s specifically, but they’d be helpful for anybody – and seniors particularly.”