Friday, 16 September 2011
In recent years, Freemasonry and Parkinson's UK have built a strong relationship to help deal with this degenerative condition at both a research and community level, as Matthew Scanlan reports

Most readers will have heard of Parkinson’s and know that it is a degenerative condition. It selects its victims at random and affects people from all sectors of society – young and old, rich and poor – including many household names such as Deborah Kerr, Sir Michael Redgrave, Salvador Dali, Muhammad Ali and Pope John Paul II.

Initially described as shaking palsy, Parkinson’s was discovered in the early nineteenth century by an English physician named James Parkinson, after whom the condition is named. The precise cause of Parkinson’s remains undetermined, although it is known that it begins when sensitive nerve cells in the brain die off resulting in a lack of the chemical dopamine. Symptoms typically include the onset of tremors, distorted facial expressions, a difficulty in walking, a distinctive gait, and in extreme cases (when around 70 percent of the normal level of dopamine is absent) sufferers shake uncontrollably. Although Parkinson’s does not directly cause death, there is as yet no known cure and it is a lifelong condition where symptoms get progressively worse over time.

With around 120,000 people currently living with Parkinson’s in the UK, Freemasonry has long been a supporter of Parkinson’s UK (formerly called the Parkinson’s Disease Society). Since 1981, more than half a million pounds in grants has been approved by The Freemasons’ Grand Charity.

In 2007, it donated £170,000 for a three-year research programme carried out at University College London, into a gene called PINK1, which when mutated, can cause nerve-cell death and lead to Parkinson’s. This research has helped scientists understand more about why people who inherit faulty versions of the PINK1 gene are more likely to develop Parkinson’s. Researcher, Dr Emma Deas, commented: ‘We believe that understanding how changes in PINK1 function lead to nerve-cell death will allow us to develop new and better treatments.’

In addition to its research funding, the Grand Charity announced a major grant of £250,000 earlier this year, with the aim of aiding the charity across the country at local branch level. As Laura Chapman, chief executive of The Freemasons’ Grand Charity explains, there is a great deal of support for Parkinson’s UK by Freemasons: ‘Many of our members have experience of what it is like to live with Parkinson’s, either through a friend or family connection. Parkinson’s UK has received much support within the masonic community, a key factor for why it was selected for this national grant.’

It is hoped that by dividing this grant between local branches, many people across England and Wales will benefit from additional help. The Grand Charity recognises the important role Parkinson’s UK branches play within the local community, providing dedicated support and services.

‘We were delighted to receive this grant – £250,000 is a huge amount of money,’ says Teresa Forgione, major gifts manager at Parkinson’s UK, adding that it will be divided and distributed to various Parkinson’s UK branches across the country so that grass-root charity workers can make the best use of the funds as they see fit. Parkinson’s UK is allocating the money according to local needs, with decisions being taken by regional groups.

Forgione emphasises that Parkinson’s UK’s mission is not only to discover the initial causes of Parkinson’s and thereby find a cure, but also to improve the quality of sufferers’ lives, which is where this grant can really help. The condition not only affects physical movement but also presents a variety of debilitating problems such as tiredness, pain, depression and constipation.

As the symptoms exhibited and the speed at which the condition develops vary from person to person, so do the treatments differ. Drugs are most commonly used but in some instances surgery may be utilised in order to try and reduce physical shaking through deep brain stimulation, which is done by implanting electrodes into the brain.

Forgione notes that many sufferers find that simple exercise classes help reduce the side effects of Parkinson’s, including refl exology, yoga, Pilates and even Tango classes. Judith Green, 62, from Cornwall, reports that exercise classes have made a hugely positive difference to her life since she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

‘Thanks to Pilates and Zumba classes, I have regained my balance and confidence,’ she says. ‘My consultant couldn’t believe his eyes when I walked into his office without my walking stick. In my experience being active makes such a big difference. I have seen the same benefits for other people with limited mobility and I would recommend exercise classes to anyone with the condition. I only wish I had discovered them at an earlier stage.’

The Grand Charity grant will help to fund classes such as these, as well as patient therapies and other aspects of care, such as help with transportation. The money is also going towards funding new, specially trained Parkinson’s nurses. As Forgione concludes: ‘In short, this major gift will help people live with Parkinson’s and thereby improve the quality of their lives.’

For further information on Parkinson's UK, including how you make a donation, please visit their website.

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