Man gesticulates excitedly behind a deadpan face mask

Noticing Dad's Facial Masking

I’m scrolling through comments on a Parkinson’s forum when I read a note from a stranger. She says that she struggles with "facial masking" and she hopes that her loved ones aren’t offended by their lack of expression. Reading the comment makes a lightbulb ping in my head.

My dad has Parkinson’s disease, too. He still greets the day with a smile and vows to fight the disease with everything he has. But I've always wondered if depression is a part of his fight.

Every day presents a new challenge for him, and it makes sense that he might deal with apathy or a general lowness. It’d only make sense that he might have some pretty low points. But reading about this stranger’s experience makes me realize that there might be more to the story.

What is hypomimia?

Facial freezing, facial masking, or hypomimia is a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease. It describes the "mask" that many people with Parkinson’s exhibit as they lose motor control. Hypomimia is a loss or reduction of facial expressiveness. This can also include emotional expressions, and slower and less pronounced facial movements.1

I’m usually pretty good at reading facial expressions and body language. I’ve worked in hospitality for many years, where being able to interpret someone’s expression can make or break an interaction. And I have a feeling that my dad’s spirits are low.

But when I start thinking about the difficulties he has with manipulating his facial muscles, I realize that maybe what I’m observing isn’t what it seems to be.

Misinterpreting facial expressions

Maybe his spirits aren’t as low as I’d thought. Maybe he just can’t always convey what he’s feeling in a traditional sense.

I’m relieved when I realize that his face might be betraying him, because it means that he might not be as stoic as he seems. His eyes still glimmer. And his spirit is still strong, despite the battles that he fights.

The idea that I’ve misinterpreted my dad’s expressions brings me both happiness and sadness. I’m happy to think that he might be doing better than his face tells me he’s doing. But I’m sad to think that his communication might be leaving him lonelier than he needs to be.

Is there a treatment?

In fact, it isn’t uncommon for people with Parkinson’s to struggle with social interactions as the disease progresses. And facial masking may contribute to those struggles. In addition to experiencing changes in their ability to express themselves, many people also begin to lose their ability to interpret other people’s expressions.1

It is possible to treat this Parkinson’s symptom. Many people look to medication to help manage it. But some facial exercises may help to reduce the rigidity of those facial muscles, which could in turn make it easier to express yourself.1

Some people explore creative outlets like singing and dancing in order to treat muscular changes in Parkinson’s disease. As for my dad, I vow to make him crack a few smiles when I see him next. I think that seeing his spirit will boost mine. And encouraging him to use his facial muscles might boost his.

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