Ruth Hess lives in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, not far from the Walton Sun, which publishes this column. In 1996, a doctor diagnosed her 74-year-old husband Gerald, who had served in the Air Force as a chief master sergeant, with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease affects about one person in a hundred over age sixty. A National Institutes of Health website reports that this chronic, progressive disease is caused by a loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. It has four primary symptoms: tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement, and impaired balance and coordination. Other symptoms may include difficulty swallowing, speaking or chewing; constipation or urinary problems; sleep disruptions, and depression or other emotional changes.
“I noticed it right away when some of the symptoms started 13 years ago,” said Ruth in a telephone interview. “He had a slower walk, his steps were closer together, and he was leaning from the waist. I wasn’t scared because my brother-in-law had it, so I knew what it was and what was coming. I took him right to a neurologist.”
About six years ago, Gerald had to leave his job in financial services primarily because he wasn’t able to talk loud enough on the telephone to clients. The State of Florida had given him a special phone to increase his volume, but even that wasn’t enough.
“Now, he has trouble walking, and uses a walker for short distances and a power chair when leaving home,” said Hess. “He’s handled having Parkinson’s disease well. Part of that is because of his disciplined military background. He gets up in the morning, shaves, eats breakfast, and gets out and does things. He’s on the move all the time. We just came back from week on a Mediterranean cruise.”
The last eight years, Hess, and a friend, Beborra Rogers, have been leading a 60-member support group in Fort Walton Beach for people affected by Parkinson’s disease. Her particular group has a substantial library containing books and videos about the disease, and brings in doctors to explain new treatments and operations, such as deep brain stimulation.
She said, “Get to a support group so you can understand what’s happening, what you can do, and understand the medicine. It’s possible to keep the symptoms under control with proper medication and exercise. You handle it better when knowing what it is and what you can do about it.”