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Outdoor path helps improve physical, mental well-being for people with Parkinson’s disease

Melissa Wenzel, director of Club Bethesda at the Bethesda Wellness Center in Willmar, shows off one of the features of Bethesda’s new outdoor Parkinson’s path. Developed with support from the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota, the path’s real-world environment will help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their gait, balance, mobility and overall well-being. (Tribune photo by Anne Polta)

WILLMAR — A winding brick walkway and garden is helping people with Parkinson’s disease gain strength, balance and confidence in navigating real-life environments.

The new path, developed by Bethesda Health and Housing with funding from the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota, was introduced at a community open house this week.

Believed to be among the first of its kind in the United States, the path is an innovative approach to improving the quality of life for those with Parkinson’s disease.

Ann Garrity of the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota calls it “a practice environment” for the many outdoor challenges that people with Parkinson’s are likely to encounter in their yard or neighborhood.

“We wanted to create some real-life environments for people,” she said.

Tucked into a sheltered courtyard behind the Bethesda Wellness Center, the brick-paved walkway meanders up and down gentle slopes and past therapy stations such as outdoor tables and chairs and a mailbox on a post.

It’s still in the first phase of development. More features — steps, a bridge, bird feeders, additional landscaping — will be added, said Melissa Wenzel, director of Club Bethesda at the wellness center. “Next spring we’ll finish it off,” she said.

The path is the latest addition to an initiative by Bethesda to increase the range, and quality, of local services for people with Parkinson’s disease and their families.

Leaders at Bethesda say there’s a regional need to better serve this population and help them live well, whether in their own homes or in long-term care. Last year Bethesda embarked on a pilot project with the Park Nicollet Struthers Parkinson’s Center to develop a comprehensive program for Parkinson care that couples evidence-based therapy with a focus on quality of life.

Therapy and exercise programs can do much to manage the neuromuscular symptoms of Parkinson’s, and in many cases lead to noticeable improvement in gait, balance, strength and more. But physical therapy in a health setting does not necessarily prepare people to cope in the real world, Wenzel said. “You get used to being on carpet during therapy, but what are you going to be on when you get home?”

Things like sloping sidewalks, grass lawns, curbs and steps can be challenging for someone with Parkinson’s disease who has difficulty with gait or movement, said Eileen Smith, chair-elect of the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota board of directors.

Lifting a bag of birdseed and filling a backyard bird feeder may turn something they enjoy into a struggle, said Smith. “It’s these simple daily things that people get frustrated with.”

As a result, people with Parkinson’s disease can become reluctant to go on outings and may withdraw from once-favorite activities, she said. “Isolation can be a major issue.”

The new path gives the Bethesda staff a unique tool for zeroing in on specific everyday tasks — walking down a sidewalk and opening a mailbox to get the mail, for instance — and building skills that not only help people manage these situations but increase their comfort level as well.

It’s also hoped that the serene outdoor setting will improve psychological well-being. Garrity envisions it as a place where people can enjoy hands-on gardening or spend time in meditation or tai chi. Research supports that these activities help enhance quality of life for those living with a chronic disease such as Parkinson’s, she said.

About 50 people locally are expected to immediately benefit from the addition of the outdoor path at Bethesda, Garrity said.

Numbers will be tracked to help measure outcomes. “We’d love to take this to other communities,” Garrity said. “You’ve got to constantly be researching new things.”

When weather permits, Wenzel has been leading some of her exercise classes outdoors in the courtyard. Although the path was primarily designed for the Parkinson population, anyone who needs therapy or help in building mobility can benefit from it, she said.

“It’ll be fun to watch it be used,” she said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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