A local nonprofit’s youngest and oldest participants share the benefits of daily exercise after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
By Lauren Halpern, Photos courtesy of Power for Parkinson’s
When Mollie Axtell began feeling out of balance and a little uncoordinated, she didn’t understand what was happening to her body. As a dancer who had once enjoyed ballet, she knew something was wrong when she couldn’t lift her left foot to walk without thinking about it. She was 50 years old and enjoying her new empty-nest lifestyle with her husband, Cal. At age 55, Axtell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. By then, her left hand had a tremor and she noticed a cognitive decline.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that gradually weakens the body’s muscles. According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, there are more than 1 million Americans suffering from Parkinson’s, more than multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined. The average onset age is 60, but people as young as 18 have been diagnosed. While there is no cure, medications can help, and exercise has been proven to slow the disease’s degenerative effects on the mind and body.
For Axtell, the diagnosis came with medications that led to numerous complications. She soon needed a cane to walk and felt the tremendous loss of being unable to move freely and think clearly. As a writer, speaker and ministry leader at her church, the diminished capacity to communicate was devastating.
“This is a diagnosis you never want to hear,” she says.
Then Axtell heard about Austin-based nonprofit Power for Parkinson’s. Founded in 2013 by Austinites Susan Stahl and Nina Mosier, Power for Parkinson’s hosts free, daily exercise classes throughout Austin.
She remembers shuffling into that first class with her cane, initially finding the exercises quite challenging. Now, at age 60, Axtell credits exercise as the greatest factor in her improved lifestyle.
“Exercise was way more helpful than any medication,” she says. “I went from not getting around to a very active lifestyle. Now, I attend a variety of exercise classes six times a week.”
Axtell exercises while standing at the back of the classroom. Her body is long and lithe. In fact, it’s hard to see anything is wrong until you notice the tremors in her left hand. She has slowly built up to line dancing and boxing, and is still a regular at Power for Parkinson’s Move and Shout classes.
When Dorothy Wasserman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she had already faced a few bouts of cancer in her 70s. In her words, she’d been toughened up for this next diagnosis. At 82 years old, this longtime Austinite learned about Power for Parkinson’s when she was diagnosed.
“Learning about Power for Parkinson’s was great advice from my doctor,” she says. “I want to continue shopping, walking and doing things…as long as I can.”
Like Axtell, Wasserman has seen remarkable results from her daily commitment to exercise. She participates in the Power for Parkinson’s Movement and Balance class and its singing group. She also enjoys regular tai chi lessons, home workouts and is an avid gardener.
“It’s all about your attitude,” she says. “I’ve got too much still to do.”
In 2016, the nonprofit developed a series of YouTube videos for people who prefer to exercise at home. Soon, the organization was able to connect with Parkinson’s sufferers throughout the world, and Stahl and Mosier have been delighted at the global response to their efforts.
When Power for Parkinson’s began five years ago, it offered one class serving a handful of people. It now offers 11 classes at eight locations. The nonprofit helps hundreds of Austinites improve their physical Parkinson’s symptoms, feel better mentally and enjoy the benefits that come with being part of a community.