‘Rock steady’ focus on Parkinson’s takes hold at the Jewish Home

‘Rock steady’ focus on Parkinson’s takes hold at the Jewish Home

Speaker will discuss importance of movement and awareness

Alex Kurten, left, and Carol Silver Elliott
Alex Kurten, left, and Carol Silver Elliott

Since last year, the Jewish Home has paid increasing attention to Parkinson’s disease, adding a number of new programs for patients, their caregivers, and others in the community with the disease.

That is actually quite a few people, said Carol Silver Elliott, the Jewish Home Family’s president and CEO.

“We’re defining a broad and growing program for people with this condition,” she said. “And we’re not just reaching our patient population.” Estimating that some 10 percent of patients have the disease, she noted that the Jewish Home also serves others in the community. “There are people who come to our support groups, educational programs, and to Rock Steady Boxing,” she said, noting that the boxing group will be added to the program at the Jewish Home’s Assisted Living facility in River Vale this week.

In 2006, a young attorney in Indianapolis “who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and looking for a way to slow the progress of the disease” began Rock Steady Boxing, Ms. Elliott said. One way to do that, he found, was to engage in a boxing workout. Now, 11 years later, there are boxing programs for people with Parkinson’s in many places.

“We’re the first in Bergen County” to use this program, Ms. Elliott said, “but research is showing that people improve with this.” Although the reasons are not clear yet it could be because of intense, repetitive physical activity, gains in coordination and confidence, or intellectual stimulation. It also helps participants work on their voices, which generally is affected by Parkinson’s.

“We’ve added a number of therapeutic modalities for people with Parkinson’s,” Ms. Elliott added, mentioning Tai Chi, yoga, and dance among the offerings. “It’s very exciting. A lot of things are under way here for the care of people with Parkinson’s.”

The Jewish Home has trained 300 members of its staff “to know more about the issue.” Spurred by a question from a patient’s family member — “Why do you treat my husband as if he has dementia?” — “We recognized that we needed to help the staff understand more about Parkinson’s,” Ms. Elliott said. “We also learned through conversations with the Michael J. Fox Foundation that there are two genetic markers” for Parkinson’s, “and there’s a higher prevalence in Ashkenazic populations.”

In December, the Jewish Home sponsored an educational program on the disease. On June 28, it will offer a second program. According to Ms. Elliott, physical therapist and dance instructor Susan Lust — a former student of Alex Kerten, the Israeli author of “Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life!” — put the Home in touch with her former teacher.

“This book focuses on patient-centered care,” Ms. Lust said. “I think it presents a new and powerful message to the health-care industry — that patients, working with experts such as Alex Kerten, can take control of their health.” Ms. Kerten’s writings on the subject have been cited by the National Parkinson’s Association and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Mr. Kerten — who lives in Herzliya, where his Gyro-Kinetics Center is housed — said that his story began when he was in his early 20s and went to Japan to study martial arts. (He holds seven black belts.) When he returned to Israel, he “worked with structuring and healing movements,” he said. He describes gyro-kinetics as a technique that uses movement, music, proper breathing techniques, and exercises to help people with Parkinson’s “take back control of their lives.”

“The body needs rhythm, expression, and movement,” he said in a phone conversation, adding that he has been very influenced by the martial arts and the art of moving, which holds that when previously automatic actions are no longer reliable, a patient must learn to move and speak consciously.

“I started to investigate the effects of music on behavior,” Mr. Kerten said. “I put that into martial arts” at the dojo where he worked. “People came who had problems with expression, concentration, posture, movement, and breathing. It worked well with that.”

After a while, he realized that many of the people who came to him were suffering from Parkinson’s disease. So, he said, 30 years ago he began to focus on that condition, leaving behind his other pursuits, except for martial arts.

To that end, Mr. Kerten approached many of Israel’s leading doctors who worked with neurology and Parkinson’s. Because he specialized in the arts of movement and behavior, many of the doctors were skeptical at first. But soon his hands-on approach, demonstrated at an international convention in Rome in 2004, received high marks.

“If it didn’t prove itself, I wouldn’t have been able to keep up” my work, he said, noting that Parkinson’s is not only biochemical “but a chronic behavioral disease.”

Much depends on awareness, he said, describing a “Parkinson’s instinct” that comes into play in breathing and facial expressions. By “breaking down” each of these movements and demonstrating different ways to breathe, Mr. Kerten said, he has been effective in helping patients restore their “healthy instinct.”

The basis of martial arts is breathing, Mr. Kerten added. “I’m 72 years old and still on the mat. I breathe my rhythm or I wouldn’t be able to do it. You breathe according to what you have to do.” He said that he has had businessmen clients who come to him to learn to speak rhythmically and expressively. “Everything is movement — heart, breathing, our digestive system. If you’re aware of the rhythm of movement, you can direct it.”

At his workshop on June 28 in River Vale, Mr. Kerten will give Parkinson’s patients basic exercises to make them aware of the acts they perform. His goal, he said, is to prove to them that they can do it differently.

For more information, get in touch with the Jewish Home Family at jewishhomefamily.org. Mr. Kerten’s book, published by Divine Arts Media in 2015, is available from Amazon.

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