St. Roch couple spreads word on Parkinson’s

BRIDGEPORT – Sean and Maureen Harrigan, parishioners of St. Roch in Greenwich, are turning an unexpected life journey into their mission to educate and empower people in the Diocese of Bridgeport and beyond.

Sean was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) after the observant eyes of his wife, a registered nurse, noticed the subtle shaking of his hands while he was working from home. Parkinson’s Disease is a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements.

That was three years ago just before the pandemic shuttered the world into pockets of isolation.

Discovering Shakers Anonymous, a positive Parkinson’s support group, became a lifeline for the Harrigans as weekly Zoom calls focused on relevant and informative topics or featured a guest speaker and became a safe place to share experiences and ask for guidance.

“I found my way to this group, and they have been doing an extraordinary job,” said Sean, adding that he wants more people to be able to have access to resources that can help them.

Shakers Anonymous has since expanded into Parkinson’s Body & Mind (PBM), a collection of community-based, peer-led groups offering comprehensive exercise and wellness programs demonstrated to improve the symptoms and fight the progression of Parkinson’s Disease.

An Open House hosted at Sacred Heart University Center for Healthcare Education on September 15th is open to the public and will showcase resources available to help those impacted by the disease to live their best lives: medically, emotionally, and socially.

“I want to encourage others to grab hold of their health,” said Shakers Anonymous founder and PBM co-founder and CEO Lynn Hagerbrant, a retired nurse who was diagnosed with PD more than 13 years ago. “I am doing well because I go beyond medication,” she said.

Support, networking and encouragement are also needed, said Hagerbrant, who is currently serving on the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research Patient Council. “There is power in in-person community,” she said.

The Open House will feature a presentation and Q&A with a physician who specializes in movement disorders. A physical therapist and exercise instructors will also be on hand for informal exercise demonstrations and to answer any questions.

Sacred Heart University recently received a $60-thousand grant from the Parkinson’s Voice Project to increase its clinical outreach in support of the SPEAK OUT! Initiative which is focused on helping people with Parkinson’s regain and retain their speech and swallowing abilities.

Parkinson’s Body and Mind is currently in Fairfield, Westport, New Canaan and Greenwich.

The National Institutes of Health recommends exercise for PD patients, especially functional strength and conditioning exercises such as boxing and yoga.

The Harrigans hope the exposure and ease of accessibility of PD related activities will encourage people to participate in these programs.

Sean said the group is instrumental in helping people get comfortable with dealing with the disease and starting to think in a positive way.

The couple said it took more than a year to get accustomed to their “new normal,” and the support they have received from Parkinsons Body and Mind for both the person diagnosed with the disease and the caregiver is paramount for progress.

“It is a very safe place to talk about issues and the comradery is very beneficial. You feel less alone. It’s a nice outlet,” Maureen said, adding that the couple also speaks with a priest regularly to help navigate the challenges of living with PD.

“It’s easy to fall into depression and many with PD are reluctant to go out and interact with people. This is a way for people to exercise and socialize in a safe space,” Sean said.

Exercise is also a key component to well-being and for addressing multiple issues including balance, Sean said.

“Your muscles stiffen, you have difficulty walking or getting out of bed,” said Sean, describing everyday challenges. “The key to living with Parkinson’s Disease is to keep moving on a daily basis.”

Tai Chi, a Chinese Martial Art, is a good practice to help with any balance issues whether or not a person has Parkinson Disease, Sean said.

“The slowness of movement in Tai Chi helps a person feel the space around them,” he said.

Yoga and dance are also excellent ways to engage in physical activity for those with PD.

“When the body is going in different directions at the same time, it gets your brain to understand movement,” Sean said.

Another important lesson is how to fall. “If you’re going to fall, it’s important to know how to get down to the ground as carefully as possible,” Sean said, adding that mastering movement of the body through exercise can help with that.

Some helpful social activities include ping-pong, pickle ball, golf and walks in the park.

Sean, who retired from the financial industry shortly after his diagnosis also sits on the Board of Directors for Parkinson’s Body and Mind.

“I want people to know we are community driven,” Sean said. “Our focus is on individual care. We are peer led and many of the board members have PD.”

“We are trying to be uplifting,” Maureen said. “You can live with the disease.”


Note: The Open House for Parkinson’s Body and Mind will be held at Sacred Heart University Center for Healthcare Education, 4000 Park Avenue, Bridgeport from 12:15 – 1:15pm on Sept. 15.