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Unstoppable: A Parkinson’s Journey

By admin, 10:52 pm on

A comic said this about attitude: “a bad attitude is like a flat tire—if you don’t change it you’ll never go anywhere.” Sherwin and Betty Terrill are definitely going places.  This winter, they are heading to Tennessee to see Sherwin’s 97-year old dad, then to friends in Charleston, and on to Florida for pre-dawn beachcombing. Parkinson’s is not stopping them. They’ve been facing challenges together since they were new parents in Hawaii in the early 1960’s.  Even though most of us tend to think of Hawaii as paradise, it was no piece of cake; Sherwin and Betty will tell you it taught them a life lesson and shaped their journey:Make the best of the your situation.

Parkinson’s disease was never on their itinerary.  In 1998, when Sherwin was diagnosed, they didn’t know anyone who had the disease. Or how Sherwin’s finger twitch could be more than a pinched nerve.  Or that the man who had sung in church and in a quartet could no longer reach the high notes for his tenor part or keep his voice strong because of a chronic illness.

Life Lessons #2–Prepare for living with Parkinson’s disease and #3: If you’re in denial, you haven’t gone through the grief process–give you a hint of the tough times and decisions they’ve weathered in the last 15 years since Sherwin’s diagnosis.  They have worked hard to accept the reality of an altered present and future. Sherwin cautions people not to be too attached to their houses because, “you might be able to live better if you live differently.”  The Terrills moved to Omaha about 5 years ago, to be near family. Their determination to find a place that would permit long-term mobility for Sherwin meant they spent more than planned.  This was a conscious decision; they knew they would travel less than in their pre-PD vision of retirement.

Sherwin’s PD has not stopped his creative and mathematical mind.  When the new house’s deck needed rebuilding, two contractors could not come up with a plan at reasonable labor costs.    Applying Life Lesson #4: Be patient with yourself and your changing abilities, Sherwin knew it might take him longer to solve, but he could still do it. He and his sons rebuilt the deck and reused the materials to build an arbor. He’s also built a beautiful curved bridge over a stream, which runs though his back yard.  His workshop says “living,” not “Parkinson’s.” Even though he admits his PD makes him stiffer and slower, he has adapted to continue what he enjoys.  Modified equipment on wheels with brakes and new techniques such as using the grooves of his saw to steady his hands, keep him woodworking and safe.

Early in their Parkinson’s journey, Betty and Sherwin learned his symptoms vary over the course of the day—sometimes Sherwin could do things and others he could not.  Sherwin says it is best to ask if a person with PD needs help, because they may not need it, or may need it in a specific way.  Ask for help, for the big and small, is Life Lesson #5. Some people avoid support groups because they think they don’t need help.  Betty and Sherwin formed one, which meets in their accessible house, to give others a nearby place for problem solving, sharing information, and fellowship.

Lou Holtz (football coach), Abe Lincoln (preserver of the Union), and DaVinci (artist), to name a few, have written about the importance of keeping a positive attitude. Sherwin and Betty know what all those people knew.  When Sherwin’s doctor gave him a 90% certainty of Parkinson’s, he also handed him a stack of reading.  Sherwin had this to say of the grim pile, “after reading a few of the examples of the worst cases of PD, I thought ‘I don’t think I’m gonna read anymore.’”  Thus, we come to Life Lesson #6: Don’t “horribilize” or get too hung up on yourself; normal people have problems, too.

Life Lesson #7: life goes on; focus on what you can change and don’t worry about the future, was not the easiest thing for Betty to learn.  A natural planner and former Human Resources executive, she worried at first at how they would manage and what was ahead. Sherwin respects her need to know more, while at the same time Betty relies on his positive attitude and wish to “enjoy the day.”  Betty believes, “we can miss a lot of life when we are always thinking about tomorrow.”

The Terrills are deeply spiritual and focus on living in the present, being grateful, and enjoying each moment.  Betty reads “Jesus Calling,” by Sarah Young, and meditates. She reads the Bible to Sherwin when he cannot keep it steady. Sherwin underscores his faith by saying, “I know bad things happen. Where would our faith be without challenges of life?  If He wants to take away challenges, I’ve learned enough.  The Lord will be with us. We can choose to enjoy the day.”  Betty wrote this for her grandchildren, “Christmas is everyday, in our hearts.  Be awed by [Christ’s] presence.  The Lord is working in you. Disappointments in life can lead to a deeper understanding of the Lord.”

Sherwin understands balance, too, as he expressed in Life Lesson #8:  Try not to get too upset when you’re physically at the bottom; you’ll see a higher swing.  While he focuses on the upside, I heard frustration in his voice when Sherwin described the difficulties he sometimes has with eating and reading.  He carefully manages his medications, using an alarm reminder.  He knows how medications affect him, sometimes waking at 2 in the morning to take them so his system will be ready for getting up.  One of Sherwin’s key challenges with PD is his gradually shrinking “on-time;” he’s hoping for true delayed release medications.  Sherwin actively focuses his mind elsewhere, knowing he is better when he is not thinking about his symptoms.  His woodworking activities are joined by Internet research (he’s the “go to guy” for his type of Parkinson’s), genealogical research, and a lot of exercise. In good weather, when not gardening or playing Bocce Ball, Sherwin might be riding his recumbent bike, which has been upgraded to go up hills.

Betty has great advice for us all: “Relax more, don’t wait to do the things you want to do, such as a trip to Alaska, and be honest with each other.” She used to worry about Sherwin driving.  When he had trouble staying awake while driving, he gave it up, knowing he was a danger to himself and others.  Selling his truck was very hard.  Now she drives and he navigates. Their roles for handling finances have changed, too.  They discuss decisions because Betty depends on Sherwin’s wisdom.

Thomas Jefferson wisely said, “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” Sherwin closed our interview with this: “Remember in living with Parkinson’s, ‘living’ comes first.”

Lee Nyberg was uplifted by her interview with the Terrills and deeply touched by their fortitude and faith. She is proud to serve her community and her clients through her senior care company, Home Care Assistance.  She can be reached by phone at 402-261-5158 or via the “contact us” link at HomeCareAssistanceLincoln.com.

Photo Credit: IMG_0257″ by WimHarwig, Some rights reserved,

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