Friday, December 11, 2009

Choral group offers upbeat therapy for Parkinson's patients

SOOTHING SOUNDS: From left, Clark Elliot, Stern, and Barbara and Alan Brow

Walter Stern, a 79-year-old resident of Chestnut Hill, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease nearly a decade ago. Over the years, he has taken medications and gone to physical therapy to manage symptoms associated with the illness. Since September, Stern has been participating in a new kind of therapy -- singing -- to address the communication and social obstacles he, and other Parkinson's disease patients like him, face.


Stern is a member of the "Tremble Clefs," a choral group designed for patients with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers. Those affected by the illness commonly have difficulty with vocal loudness and articulation. Singing enables participants to learn and practice techniques to improve their speech in an enjoyable, natural way. It offers an engaging challenge and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity for social interaction. The group was established through a collaborative effort by Catherine O'Connor, MS, CCC-SLP, of the MGH Department of Speech, Language, Swallowing and Reading Disabilities; Albert Hung, MD, PhD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and Movement Disorders Clinic; Nancy Mazonson, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist and coordinator for the Parkinson Family Support Program at Jewish Family & Children's Service; and the staff of the Brookline Senior Center. Approximately 20 participants attend the weekly sessions, which begin with warm-up breathing and speech exercises led by O'Connor, a speech-language pathologist. The remainder is dedicated to working with a conductor and pianist on a range of upbeat songs.

"Participants learn strategies for increasing loudness and improving vocal quality in a socially supportive context," says O'Connor. "It's a fun, community-based approach to learning speech strategies." Stern is one of the group's most vocal participants. He sits at the center of the room and sings proudly, especially during his favorite piece of music, "Edelweiss." Before his diagnosis, Stern was a member of professional choral groups, including the renowned Masterworks Chorale of Lexington, for more than 40 years. He missed singing with others until learning of the Tremble Clefs. Since joining the group, Stern says he's noted an improvement in the strength of his voice, especially when speaking on the phone.

"This program is the opportunity to stare something difficult in its face and share the goal of overcoming it with others," he adds. For more information about the program, contact Mazonson at 781-693-5069.

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