Parkinson's and COVID-19: Staying Connected at a Distance

A few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought enormous changes and challenges to our lives. Bare shelves in supermarkets, schools moving to online education, perhaps until fall, working from home (telework), widespread cancellations of significant events.

Add to this list of challenges a plunging stock market, a recessing economy, and, perhaps most concerning, a bleak outlook on how stressed our healthcare system will become before the rates of infection begin to stabilize—what is called the “flattening of the curve.”

These unprecedented hardships create collective shock, fear, anxiety, and worry, our own and others'. Stress surrounds people all across the world. Amid such uncertainty and threats, we have to remain aware of both the psychological, emotional, and physical toll all of this takes on us. We know the damaging effects of long-term stress.1

Effects of stress on Parkinson’s

Stress can be detrimental to anyone. It can elevate blood pressure and raise heart rates, disrupt breathing and disturb sleep, impede ability for concentrating, and cause headaches.

Stress can also exacerbate Parkinson’s symptoms such as tremor, stiffness, slowness, and problems with balance.2 For all of these reasons, managing unavoidable stress becomes essential for living well with PD.

Distancing can lead to isolation

A global pandemic adds this complication: The very thing we need most in times of duress, namely, the close proximity of significant others — and I include physical nearness — is precisely what we have to yield as we practice this new phenomenon called “social distancing.”

As naturally social creatures, human beings rely on one another; we literally and figuratively need to lean on one another. And this natural tendency becomes more difficult to practice when we have to “self-isolate” and “socially distance” ourselves from family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, even our healthcare teams who keep us feeling and functioning better.

What can we do?

Here are a few suggestions for how to manage in these stressful and more isolated times:

Continue exercising

We know that regular vigorous exercise helps those with Parkinson’s feel better and can slow down disease progression. While exercising with others might not be possible just now, we can get outside, walk, bike, run, swim, and dance (solo). We can make use of exercise classes live-streamed over the internet, as well as those captured on video. One resource for both of these methods for exercise is Power for Parkinson’s, which provides free use of their videos and streamed classes.

Continue socializing

Physical distance (at least six feet) need not require social distancing, and it’s unfortunate that we are not calling for physical distancing as opposed to social distancing. You can easily maintain rhythms of conversation and social engagement using technology, such as FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. You can also speak to neighbors outside, at an appropriate distance. I had several meaningful conversations this week with neighbors I do not typically see, much less take time to speak with. This is one unanticipated benefit that comes with so much distress and concern about the pandemic.

Continue seeing your care team

Encourage your care team members to offer telepractice if possible. In many cases, a consultation over the phone or via video (using the platforms noted previously) can provide adequate, if not ideal, support and care until we can resume making visits in person. Speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy can happen using telepractice, albeit in modified ways. I will see my neurologist for my scheduled 6-month checkup in a few days, but we will meet via FaceTime as opposed to in person. I appreciate my doctor’s offer to do this with all of her patients, for now. We cannot allow the ideal to be the enemy of the adequate when no better option exists.

Stay connected

Along with handwashing and physical distancing, we must remain steadfast in our social and emotional connections and in connections to members of our care teams.

Wash hands. Be careful. Practice distancing. Stay connected.

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