WILLMAR - Local residents with Parkinson’s disease in search of certified speech and physical therapy to help them manage their symptoms used to have to travel to Minneapolis for services.

The expansion of LSVT therapy in Willmar means more of them can receive this specialized care close to home.

It’s one of the steps taken in an effort to help Willmar become a Parkinson’s-friendly community. The city is among half a dozen in Minnesota that are part of an initiative by the National Parkinson Foundation of Minnesota to improve the quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s.

Kimberly Kleven, a speech therapist at Rice Memorial Hospital’s Rice Rehabilitation Center, says she sees people gain new confidence as they progress through LSVT Loud therapy.

“It’s empowering to patients,” she said.

The Parkinson’s-friendly initiative has been underway for at least three years now.

There’s a ready population in need of services. Each year 60,000 new cases of the neurodegenerative disease are diagnosed in the U.S. For unknown reasons, the incidence is higher in the Midwest.

Because many people live with Parkinson’s for years, often even for decades, symptom management and quality are key goals. But it wasn’t until recently that treatment began to shift from a focus on medication to include wellness, enabling people to work, play and maintain quality of life as long as possible.

“Independence is huge,” said Lynn Stier, director of the Rice Rehab Center.

The rehab center already had a physical therapist and an occupational therapist trained in LSVT Big and LSVT Loud therapy, an approach that uses amplified movement and amplified speech to help maintain these functions, which diminish as Parkinson’s progresses.

Formally known as Lee Silverman Voice Treatment, LSVT is evidence-based and widely used.

A grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation recently allowed the rehab center to train one more physical therapist and one more speech therapist in LSVT Big and Loud. It has resulted in more capacity and better access for patients in need of services, Stier said.

Many of the benefits are practical. With the help of Loud therapy, people can increase their ability to communicate and be heard and reduce the potential for social isolation, Kleven said.

“I’ve had people who are holding meetings and feeling like they have the confidence to do those things again,” she said.

LSVT Big therapy can improve gait and balance and reduce the risk of falls.

Nikki Hjelden, one of two physical therapists at Rice Rehab trained in LSVT Big, said people who have been through the program report being more active and independent.

“I’ve heard ‘I started throwing a football again.’ ‘I can take a bath alone.’ It’s motivating for the patient,” she said. The Rice Rehab Center, which also has provided a day-long Parkinson’s assessment clinic once a month since 2000, isn’t the only local facility to increase its profile among the Parkinson’s community.

Bethesda Health and Housing launched an effort in 2012 to become a regional magnet for Parkinson’s services.

Along with outpatient therapy, Bethesda has invested in staff and community education.

One of its more innovative projects was the development of an outdoor “Parkinson’s path” that brings a real-life environment to its physical therapy program.

Last year Bethesda also helped bring Pedal and Roll to Willmar, a program that encourages biking as a way for people with Parkinson’s to remain active.

What makes a community Parkinson’s-friendly includes many factors, but the availability of therapy services is one of the keys to unlocking a better life for this population, Stier said.

The benefits of therapy often go far beyond what people envision, Hjelde said. “Patients that have gone through the program have said they’d do it again.”