Parkinson’s patients find new source of confidence at Freeport YMCA

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FREEPORT — With a wide range of offerings, staffers at the Casco Bay branch of the YMCA thought for the most part that members’ needs were being met.

But member Dick Webster saw people who needed help. With his guidance, the branch’s first class for people with Parkinson’s disease was created.

Parkinson’s is a disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. For Webster and others who have been diagnosed, the class offers a way to offset the progression of the disease.

“What it does mostly is give us confidence in movement,” Carmen Melito said. “(The instructor) reinforces that we can move in ways we thought we couldn’t.”

Betsy Ruff agreed.

“The instructor is great because she makes us feel very comfortable,” Ruff said. “It makes me much more aware of my physical body.”

Instructor Rebecca Drouin specializes in working with people who have Parkinson’s. She did additional training at the YMCA in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where a class for those with the disease has been offered. She said the class is a great way for people to do the exercises their doctors recommend.

“Sometimes having a doctor tell you to do something, it’s the verbal, but in class you get to practice,” Drouin said.

Ruff said she’s found this to be true.

“I love the fact that the group moves me to do the exercises,” she said. “There’s something about a group that’s compelling.”

The class, which runs Mondays and Wednesdays from 11:15 a.m-12:15 p.m. and is available at no added cost to Y members, has participants do many different exercises, such as moving their feet up, down, and in circles, rolling their wrists, moving their shoulders in various patterns, and lifting and moving their legs.

They also do exercises with tennis balls, such as bouncing and catching them between their feet, tossing them back and forth between their hands and bouncing them across the room to each other. There are also walking exercises, where members move back and forth from one side of the room to the other.

There are stations, as well, where the members rotate to lift small weights, use resistance bands and work on their balance.

“The moves are simple, but it can be things that get forgotten,” Webster said.

Each class ends with a game of volleyball, where the participants try to keep a beach ball in the air as long as possible without having it touch the ground. Amid laughter and smiles, members said it’s the most enjoyable part of the class.

The class started early last fall; about 10-12 people attend. According to Kelly Newell, the branch’s wellness director, some of the people who come were already members, and others joined the YMCA so they could be in the class. She said caretakers who come to class don’t have to be members.

Newell said the class wouldn’t exist without Webster and his awareness of people in the community who have Parkinson’s.

“Dick Webster spearheaded the idea. He was the one who got it started,” Newell said. “He knew of the interest and the need in the community.”

Webster and Melito have also started a support group at the YMCA for people who want to talk about how the disease affects their lives.

“I think what’s important is to know that there are people in the same boat as you,” Melito said.

Newell said the class is growing and may need to be moved to a larger room, or maybe split into two different levels that would be divided according to the stages of the disease.

She said the YMCA is also looking at other special classes it can offer.

“Having this class is opening up our eyes to other specific needs in the community,” Newell said.

She added that the Parkinson’s class isn’t just for people with Parkinson’s and that people with any neurological disease are welcome to attend. Drouin agreed, saying that people aren’t there to talk about what disease they have or how long they’ve had it. She said the class is very welcoming.

“No matter where you are with Parkison’s, there’s a spot for you here,” Drouin said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Instructor Rebecca Drouin leads a class for people with Parkinson’s disease at the Casco Bay YMCA in Freeport. Tossing, bouncing, and catching tennis balls helps improve movement.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.