He Won't Let Parkinson's Challenge Get Him Down


"I may not be able to control what happens to me, but I can control what to do about it."

So says Jan Peter Stern of Santa Monica who, 14 years ago, at the age of 50, began to notice symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as Parkinson's disease. Stern chooses to call the illness Parkinson's challenge.

The challenge for Stern is similar to others with Parkinson's. It is the struggle with the gloom and desperation of living with a slow, debilitating illness, which is evidenced by tremors in the hands and lack of balance. But for Stern, Parkinson's has deeper implications. He is a sculptor. He works in metal--and he continues to work.

"I was depressed by my diagnosis and began to focus on what was overwhelming," Stern recalls. "Only when I began to write down my ways of coming to grips with the challenge did I gain a more objective view. I believe this point of view is what still saves me from breaking under the load of virtually everything becoming more difficult." The essence of this view is that life need not be terrible or change radically because of Parkinson's. In fact, in many ways it can be richer--but it is slower.

In 1987, after writing down his coping methods, Stern published a booklet, "The Parkinson's Challenge: A Beginner's Guide to a Good Life in the Slow Lane." In it, he wrote that "the coping methods I describe are goals, not necessarily my level of attainment."

The rewards are the letters he receives from people who find his words helpful.

Writing a booklet to help others is in character for Stern. He was born in Berlin in 1926 and came to the United States in 1938. He earned a degree in Industrial Design at Syracuse University and, while still a university student, converted his car into an ambulance to help the local fire department.

He was a member of the National Ski Patrol. He has taught first aid for the American Red Cross since 1948. Trained as an emergency medical technician, he has worked as a volunteer in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UCLA since 1981. In the emergency room, he speaks to elderly people who are disoriented, calms them down and, in his words, "dispenses compassion."

While encouraging Parkinson's patients to remain active, Stern says that to prevent injuries it is also important to be aware of one's limitations. He has, for example, replaced the physical thrill of roller skating, wind surfing and skiing with the mental nourishment of music.

He also has a lot to look forward to. He just completed a three-month training session with Santa Monica-based Senior Health and Peer Counseling and hopes to start seeing clients soon.

"I want to help people live with more intensity and get more out of life, but not tell them what to do--just tell them it's not an impossible task," he says.

Stern is also entering a public art competition in Boulder, Colo., along with his artist-wife, Irene, and his two sons.

"We are entering as a family. My son Danny writes, my son Billy is a musician, and we will submit a group entry."

Stern's eyes brighten as he says this, and it is at this point that he looks at his wife of 36 years and says, "When Irene came into my life, it grew tremendously, everything started to make sense." For Jan Peter Stern, life in the slow lane is filled with hope.

For a free copy of "The Parkinson's Challenge," write to Jan Peter Stern at PO Box 1817, Santa Monica, 90406. The Senior Health and Peer Counseling Center is located at 2125 Arizona Ave . , Santa Monica. For information call: (213) 828-1243.

Bulletin Board

Volunteers Needed--Assistance League of Southern California Hollywood Senior Multipurpose Center needs volunteers to help deliver meals to homebound seniors; information: (213) 957-3900.

Garden Ideas--Morrie Bernstein will demonstrate "Fall Planting Ideas"; Culver City Senior Center, 4153 Overland Ave., Culver City; 12:30 p.m. Wednesday; information: (213) 202-5856 (free).

Vision Care--Pacific Coast Eye Center will provide cataract and glaucoma screenings; Las Palmas Senior Citizens Center, 1820 Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood; 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday; information: (213) 274-1112 (free).

Afternoon Dance--Westchester Senior Center will sponsor an afternoon dance; 8740 Lincoln Blvd., Los Angeles; 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday; information: (213) 649-3317 ($1.50).

Health Care--Senior Health and Peer Counseling Center offers assistance in choosing and understanding health care benefits; 2125 Arizona Ave., Santa Monica; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays; appointment, information: (213) 829-4715 (free).

Lip Reading--Lois Frand will teach lip reading for the hearing impaired; Felicia Mahood Senior Multipurpose Center, 11338 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles; 9:30 a.m. to noon Thursdays; information: (213) 477-2084 (free).

Please submit items for the Bulletin Board three weeks in advance to The Times' Westside Office, 1717 4th St., Suite 200, Santa Monica 90401.

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