Jo’s story: living an active life with Parkinson’s

When Saltburn-by-the-Sea mum, Jo Yaldren, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s six years ago, aged 47, the prognosis came as a huge shock.

Whilst Jo had noticed some subtle changes in herself, such as her handwriting getting smaller, a feeling of tiredness and a tremor on her left side, she hadn’t connected any of the symptoms. So, despite being a nurse for many years, Parkinson’s was the last thing on her mind. Like many people, Jo associated the condition with older people, particularly older men.

“There are over 40 symptoms of Parkinson’s, and you don’t know which ones you are going to get, how bad they are going to be or how quickly they are going to come on” explained Jo.

“If you spoke to 100 people with Parkinson’s, you are probably going to hear 100 different types of Parkinson’s; it’s not a one size fits all type of condition” added Jo.

After the shock of her diagnosis, Jo struggled to come to terms with what living with the condition meant. She soon started medication and was also offered counselling and physio.

“I was devastated when I first found out, and it has taken me years to get my head around it and come to terms with it.”

Jo found that learning to live with an uncertain future and suffering from a great sense of loss were the most challenging things she experienced when first diagnosed.

“At first, I didn’t want anyone to know, but the counselling has really helped, and the NHS has been amazing.”

“As Parkinson’s is degenerative over time, you have to give up doing things you love. Giving up work was extremely hard. Not being able to play the guitar anymore was another blow, and now I can’t write. Bit by bit, you lose the ability to do things you previously took for granted.”

Whilst Jo may have lost control of some things in her life she has realised one of the things she has control of is her attitude and how she responds to things. Jo knew she couldn’t change her diagnosis but decided she wanted to start living her life, and, as a result, there are things she has done that she would never have gotten around to that have resulted in a lot of joy, fun and adventures.

“I threw myself into yoga and got to do it at the Natural History Museum; I started stand-up paddleboarding; danced at silent discos; took part in a Boxing Day dip; and started a community beach clean group in Saltburn. Plus, I’ve also discovered a real love for tai chi.”

Although there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s, managing the symptoms through healthy lifestyle choices and maintaining an active lifestyle is possible. Several research studies have shown that regular exercise, that includes walking, strength training or tai chi can help maintain or improve mobility, balance and coordination in people with Parkinson’s.

Being active has helped Jo keep her symptoms at bay, so she tries to incorporate as much activity as possible into her daily life.

“I do quite a lot of exercise, which I find helps, and I’ve learnt to look after my body more.”

“Over two years, exercise has helped me become more flexible. When I first started, I couldn’t even do simple things like fastening my bra and have gone on to do all sorts of things.”

During the pandemic, Jo has still been able to continue with yoga and tai chi as she could do classes online or in an outdoor setting socially distanced.

“I absolutely love walking, and I’m often out with the dog on the beach or in the woods for an hour a day.”

Improving your mobility is an essential aspect of helping to manage Parkinson’s symptoms. In addition, there is lots of evidence suggesting that physical activity helps slow down progression.

“People with Parkinson’s experience a lot of balance issues, and there have been a few occasions where I have tripped, but I haven’t fallen over because my legs have been stronger because I have remained active.

“Whether it’s just climbing the stairs or dancing to music in the kitchen, I always try and find things that I enjoy to keep me active, as it is beneficial for me.”

When Jo was a cardio rehab nurse, she saw first-hand the benefits being active had on her patients.

“Over a couple of weeks, it was visible how much patients improved, they may be using a stick to walk in week one, and by week eight, they would have ditched the stick, improved their fitness and grown in confidence.

“It’s easy when your body is struggling to give up and do nothing at all, but I know I feel better if I’m more active, and I’m a big advocate for it.”

Jo’s top tip for those struggling to motivate themselves to get moving more is to find someone else who wants to make a positive change and become more active too, as you’re more likely to do something together as you won’t want to let each other down.

“Don’t worry about how you may look or that at first you may be struggling, as most people will admire the fact that you are courageous and giving it a go.”

Engaging in any level of physical activity is beneficial, rather than being sedentary, as it improves motor symptoms, balance and walking speed. Plus, it can also help with cognition, depression, and fatigue.

“In my experience, when people are diagnosed with a health condition, the thing that they worry about most is losing their independence. But by doing a little bit of exercise, you are going to stay independent for longer, and this can often be the trigger that motivates people into doing something. There is no downside to exercising. You just have to be gentle with yourself at the start and don’t overdo it.”

At the moment, Jo’s symptoms mean she hasn’t been able to be as physically active as much as she would like. Whilst she misses it, she also recognises she needs to be kind to herself and wait for this moment to pass once her new medication takes effect. At that point, she’ll start again, modifying what she can do and listening to her body.

“There are many benefits to being active so just give it a go and try different things to find out what you enjoy as you’ll reap the benefits and stay well for longer.”

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