Like many chronic illnesses, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive chronic illness with different stages. The purpose of this article is to help you better prepare yourself to cope with this illness and also to recognize when you will need outside help such as a professional caregiver.
Parkinson’s disease is an illness of the nervous system that usually appears between the ages of 50 and 70. It is caused by the degeneration and loss of dopaminergic neurons responsible for the production of dopamine, which leads to motor complications and movement disorders. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter of the brain associated with desire and pleasure.
However, it is now known that dopaminergic neurons are involved in movement control. Thus, when these neurons are destroyed, we start seeing tremors, characteristic of Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, the production of excess dopamine in certain areas of the brain is at the root of the terrible symptoms associated with schizophrenia.
The four stages of Parkinson’s disease
Four stages of evolution of the disease are generally distinguished. That said, the symptoms, as well as the progression of the disease, will vary from one individual to another.
The first symptoms
The appearance of the first symptoms of Parkinson’s may be a shock for the patient with the disease but in fact, the disease actually began between 5 to 10 years earlier and a variable proportion of dopaminergic neurons have disappeared.
The “honeymoon” stage
During this period, the manifestation of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is not very important and the patient’s life can continue in a fairly normal way. This period will last between 3 and 8 years, depending on the individual.
However, this first real stage of Parkinson’s disease is very difficult for patients because the permanence of the symptoms is a source of concern and sometimes the medical profession fails to make a definitive diagnosis at the beginning, this period of uncertainty adds to the worry. Learning that you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s requires reassessment and accepting treatment may take more or less time depending on each individual.
During this period, when the patient is being treated, the effectiveness of the dopaminergic treatment is very positive.
The “fluctuations” stage
During this period, there is a worsening of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and patients are experiencing episodes of motor problems. These episodes of fluctuations occur in 50% of cases, about 4 to 6 years after the appearance of the first symptoms.
Even if the patient feels better during this period due to dopaminergic treatment, the symptoms remain and the disease continues to evolve. The patient will be forced to take medication several times a day and reorganize his life according to the disease.
The so-called advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease
At this point, the dopaminergic treatment loses its effectiveness.
Loss of balance and falls become frequent as well as swallowing issues and vegetative disorders. Other disorders such as cramps, blood pressure problems or urinary dysfunction can also be observed. At this point, many patients will remain bedridden.
Intellectual issues and psychological manifestations appear: depression, loss of memory, confusion or even dementia.
What do family caregivers need to know?
If you are a family caregiver, Parkinson’s also affects you. Know that family caregivers tend to think that they will stay healthy and will always be able to provide the required care. Yet, they often become exhausted and sick. Here are a few tips :
- Take care of yourself and continue to pursue your own interests;
- Make time to relax;
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle, exercise and have a good diet;
- Plan an “emergency plan” in case you get sick;
- Join support groups listed by Parkinson Society Canada;
- Above all, do not hesitate to call a professional caregiver or a home care service.
The evolution of Parkinson’s disease will vary from one individual to another but its end is inevitable and it will eventually affect all family members. No treatment currently stops the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
For more information, contact the Parkinson Society at www.parkinson.ca.