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Moving to the beat: Local college combines music and physical therapy to treat Parkinson’s

Parkinson's clinic 5.
Racquel Stephen
A group of Parkinson's patient partake in a music and physical therapy student-run session at Nazareth College

Inside a building at Nazareth College, a room on the second floor is full of clapping, stomping -- and a soulful rendition of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

It’s not a concert, though – it's physical therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m looking for solutions to Parkinson’s," said John Robinson, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2017.

He found one solution in participating in these therapy clinics once a week.

Parkinson's Clinic
Racquel Stephen
Parkinson's patient, John Robinson, being assisted by two physical therapy students at Nazareth College.

“That's one of the things about Parkinson's -- you gotta move,” he said.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, increasing physical activity to at least 2.5 hours a week can slow the progression of the disease. Adding music to the exercise helps improve the quality of the workout by increasing stamina and lifting spirits.

Robinson said he’s not really a music person, but the rhythm does make him do more.

“With the music, you got a beat going, songs that you recognize, and with that recognition I’m able to move my legs better because I'm trying to go with a beat,” he said.

Students in the college’s Health and Human Service School run the clinic inside the York Wellness and Rehabilitation Institute, and are supervised by faculty members. The music therapy students play the instruments and lead the sing-alongs, while physical therapy students choreograph the movements.

Parkinson's Clinic 02
Racquel Stephen
Nazareth College's Parkinson's patients perform arm movements as part of the therapy.

“Our students are using their skills, developing their skills, while they're serving members of the community,” said Catherine Rasmussen, the interim dean for health and human services. She said the clinics are here to serve the Rochester community — particularly those who are uninsured or underinsured.

“If someone is presenting with a condition that our students are prepared to work with, then we're able to add them to our clinic rosters and see them on a semester basis,” she added.

Racquel Stephen
Parkinson's patient Tom Krieger warms up at the Parkinson's clinic at Nazareth College.

More than 15,000 patients visit Nazareth clinics per academic year, and more than a third of the college’s enrollment are students pursuing a health and human services degree. That number includes Jamai Thomas, a first-year graduate student in the physical therapy program. He’s been co-leading the exercise portion of the dual clinic.

“It's important for us to make sure that they're enjoying themselves, and that we're also improving them as we go on,” Thomas said.

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, the therapy sessions were moved online. Now that some things are back in person, undergraduate musical therapy student MacKenzie Lyons said it’s much more rewarding to see how the clients are progressing, in part due to the music.

“Once we add music it just makes the whole environment more enjoyable,” Lyons said.

Tom Krieger can attest to that. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s a little over two years ago, and he was taking part in his third session at the clinic.

“As long as I keep exercising, I'm OK. That's the important part,” said Krieger.

Krieger, a former radio operator, says the music part of therapy makes him nostalgic. It's also the part that cheers him up and has a lot to do with the progress he’s making, he said.

“It pushes me to a point where I'm at my edge,” Krieger said.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.