Green Valley’s Gary Morris was looking forward to a retirement stocked with golf, tennis, his 300-score bowling games and other activities the athletic man duly enjoyed.
But Parkinson’s Disease had other plans.
Goodbye tennis, goodbye bowling. The disease let the golf game linger for the moment, but certainly made it go downhill.
Early symptoms of the degenerative brain disorder, which has gained much awareness through actor Michael J. Fox, are trembling and loss of coordination. Later symptoms may include difficulty walking, talking, swallowing and even standing without falling forwards or backwards.
The physical symptoms are just one aspect of the disease.
“Parkinson’s challenges you in all aspects of your life,” said Gary, a 68-year-old former high school German teacher. “On the emotional side, each new loss brings up anger, frustration and depression, to say nothing of feeling sorry for myself.
“I was very angry,” he recalled upon his diagnosis 12 years ago. “It was so unfair. Instead of looking forward to enjoying retirement, I felt my life was over.”
More than a decade later and with the help of his wife of 42 years, Carroll, Gary has proved you can keep on living after the diagnosis and he encourages others to do the same.
His efforts have earned him a special Local Hero Award from the Davis Phinney Foundation, which will be presented during the Jan. 30 Victory Summit here in Tucson. The foundation is named after the Olympic cyclist who had been diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson’s.
The Davis Phinney Foundation’s Victory Summit is an educational and inspirational event for people living with Parkinson’s Disease and their families. The event is at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa and is free. Click HERE for more info or to register.
Gary is former president of the Green Valley/Sahuarita Parkinson’s support group – which he calls an “incredible organization” – and he continues to volunteer because “I want to do my part.”
He also initiated and remains co-leader of the men’s discussion group and spearheaded the first annual Parkinson’s Activity Day. The activity day raised more than $2,000 for research and brought together the local Parkinson’s community.
“Gary encourages other people with Parkinson’s to stay mentally stimulated, physically active, and socially connected. He is a hero to many and is truly deserving of the award that will be presented to him at the upcoming Victory Summit,” according to the Davis Phinney Foundation.
The Morrises, who have four adult children and moved from Minnesota in 2003, have come a long way in coping with the disease.
While Gary erupted in anger at the news of his diagnosis, Carroll had a different reaction.
“I burst out into tears,” said the 65-year-old writer, certified hypnotherapist and Rapid Eye technician. “My mother had had Parkinson’s, and I knew all too well what the diagnosis meant. The doctor looked at me and asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ which made me cry more.”
Carroll’s mother died after suffering with Parkinson’s for 14 years.
“Having Mr. Parkinson’s as a third partner in the marriage means we are constantly having to adjust to his demands as well as our personal needs,” Carroll said. “It’s not easy to find the right balance. You adjust to a new loss of ability and get used to a ‘new normal.’ Then you wake up one day, and there’s something new to adjust to.”
Adjustment and perseverance are definitely key to dealing with the disease.
“I keep going,” Gary said. “I’ve changed my expectations and found new avenues – I now bowl on the Wii machine.”
He also frequents the local recreation center and a special weekly program at the Green Valley Country Club where folks with Parkinson’s can use the facilities.
“We don’t do so well,” he said, “but we’re out there, and it gives us a lot of pleasure.”
Gary also gleans pleasure from helping others.
“Staying active and helping others picks me up again. Reading Michael J Fox’s Lucky Man was a big help early on. He taught me that a person with Parkinson’s can still be happy.”
The disease has also brought the couple closer.
“We’ve learned to communicate better,” Carroll said. “We’ve had conversations that we might never have had otherwise, about our feelings, fears, plans for how to handle increasing disability.”
They have also learned to appreciate the life’s little pleasures – and how to stay upbeat.
“When I feel down because of my situation – which by the way isn’t nearly as bad as what some others with Parkinson’s are dealing with – I perk myself up with little sayings like: I feel good, I feel fine, I feel this way all the time! We climb mountains, we climb hills; When that doesn’t work, we take our pills!”
The worst thing someone with Parkinson’s – or a caregiver – could do is try to do it alone.
“It’s a tough journey,” Gary said, “but there are those who can and will make it with you.”
Gary’s top three tips for those with Parkinson’s:
The answer to that question is in the motto I came up with for our Green Valley/Sahuarita Parkinson’s support group:
Give Parkinson’s the SAC
Carroll’s top tips for caregivers of those with Parkinson’s:
1. Learn as much as you can about the disease.
2. Communicate clearly with care partner, family and doctor
3. Take advantage of all the programs the American Parkinson Disease Association offers caregivers, such as reduced cost for respite care and massages.
4. Forgive yourself and forgive your care partner.
Her big message:
Take care of yourself. Between 60 and 75 percent of caregivers have stress-related health problems, including insomnia, high blood pressure, stomach problems. Also, a high percentage of caregivers will die before the person they’re caring for. This is not because of a pre-existing condition, according to Valerie Schultz, a counselor at the Los Angeles Caregiver Resource Center, but because they stop taking care of themselves.
Ryn’s column will appear Monday as the TucsonCitizen.com editorial in the Arizona Daily Star and here on Rynski’s Blogski. Stay tuned, right after you stand up and cheer for Gary and Carroll.
Have you been diagnosed with Parkinson’s? What other advice could you offer?
What other advice would you give for dealing with other diseases or being a caregiver?