Being diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease at 44 was life-changing for Gary Boyle. But he has learned to live well with it, thanks to therapy and exercise that includes attending Patrick O’Dea’s set dancing classes in Dublin, Ireland.

“I was doing set dancing classes for years, which were great fun. And I was getting a lot of benefits and really good exercise,” says Boyle, a former human resource manager. So he felt uneasy when COVID-19 struck and O’Dea had to cancel his classes.

“One thing about Parkinson’s is you’re alone in that world,” says O’Dea. “So, the pandemic is quite scary because you’re vulnerable in yourself and in your way of thinking. You’re not sure how your life is going to continue.”

O’Dea has been teaching Irish set dancing to people with Parkinson’s disease in Dublin and Limerick for 10 years. He trained in the techniques developed by Dr. Daniele Volpe, a neurologist who found that set dancing — together with Irish music — could improve the balance and mobility of people living with Parkinson’s.

To keep those in his classes engaged and moving, O’Dea tried to look for an alternative to in-person lessons. That was when Boyle and Joe Condon, another participant in O’Dea’s classes, suggested going online.

O’Dea quickly set out to find an online meeting platform and tried a few solutions. One of the issues he ran into was the delay between the music and video when he was doing online classes using his laptop. “This was where BlueJeans excelled,” he says. “We were able to upload the recorded classes to BlueJeans, and the music and video synced.”

O’Dea also wanted the system to be easy to use since most of those attending his classes had little experience with computers. He eventually picked BlueJeans Meetings for the simplicity of navigating its interface and joining meetings. “The decision to go for BlueJeans was quite quick because I liked the platform,” says O’Dea. “I was able to work with all the tools I needed.”

In just two weeks, about 100 people with Parkinson’s had signed up for O’Dea’s online classes — nearly triple the number of those attending his in-person lessons. Dublin non-profit Move4Parkinson’s and the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland Midwest offered the classes.

“Word spread and suddenly, people were contacting us saying they wanted to get online,” says O’Dea.

Improving Mental Health

O’Dea has since been running virtual classes for groups of 30, with Condon providing technical support. The one-hour sessions comprise 40 minutes of set dancing exercises and 20 minutes just for chatting.

“There are a lot of issues when it comes to living with Parkinson’s,” says O’Dea. “Movement is one, but apathy and depression also affect a lot of people. Being able to communicate with others really helps repair people enormously.”

Boyle agrees, saying that the conversations he and others have now are better than during the in-person classes. “I think the chat at the end of each session is something people never expected to be so beneficial. They’ve learned an awful lot about dealing with Parkinson’s.”

The opportunity to swap stories via BlueJeans has done wonders for participants’ mental health, according to Boyle. “It’s incredible how people open up during chat time, and this is a real opportunity to help with mental health issues.”

To make the 20 minutes of chit-chat even more useful, Move4Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s Association of Ireland Midwest, and O’Dea would sometimes invite doctors, physiotherapists, and other guests to speak. “Everyone would be amazed and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at these people here. We can talk to them all in one chat room,’” says O’Dea.

Connecting in New Ways

These new discoveries have been vastly empowering to participants.

“A lot of people have to travel for a few hours from the south of Ireland to Dublin just to see a doctor or another practitioner,” says O’Dea. “Now, they realize how easy they can get into BlueJeans and have a consultation with their doctor online.”

But for Boyle, the biggest change among participants has been their ability to stay connected. “They know they can use this technology with their kids who are maybe living in Australia or 50 miles away but couldn’t come and see them because of travel restrictions,” he says. “It really is a wonderful use of technology. And it has shattered the fear people had of technology.”

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