Carnett: Afflicted with Parkinson’s but grateful for support

We eight sat around a table last week on the shores of a lovely lake enjoying a picnic lunch.

It was a gorgeous Southern California afternoon — blue skies and fleecy, white clouds — and we relished our much-anticipated “hang” time together.

Four couples made up our little assembly, four men and four women. Not coincidentally, four of us battle the effects of the same physical malady, Parkinson’s disease.

Take a wild guess as to how many men and women in our lively company have Parkinson’s.

Most hazarding an estimate would probably guess something approaching a 50-50 ratio. Surely, Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate. Ah, but cooking up such an assumption is a fool’s errand. Dear Momma Nature does indeed discriminate.

The ratio of the aforementioned luncheon group was 100-0. All four men have Parkinson’s. The ladies, thank goodness, are not similarly afflicted.

The eight of us came to know each other several years back through a Parkinson’s support group that we belong to. Without the disease, we’d never have met. That’s the positive takeaway from all of this: A seemingly crushing misfortune has led to deeply treasured friendships.

Parkinson’s is not an equal opportunity tormentor. Since I was first diagnosed more than seven years ago, I’ve learned from personal experience that men are about 1.5 times more likely to develop Parkinson’s than women. Why? No obvious answers, yet.

Our larger Parkinson’s support group almost exactly mirrors those figures. Discounting caregivers, 70% of our membership is male and 30% female.

Parkinson’s is a degenerative brain disorder with no known cure. It causes nerve cells to die or become impaired, and patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

I looked upon our lakeside group the other afternoon and noticed that we men were significantly more hunched over at the table than our wives; less dexterous at keeping food on our forks for the entirety of the gondola-like journey from paper plate to gaping maw; and more likely to waggle a soft drink can like maracas (rumba shakers) when sipping a soda.

But, the truth is, the four wives are every bit as affected as their spouses by the ravages of the disease — maybe more so. And the ladies are scrupulously — even compulsively — attentive to their husbands’ needs.

In addition to being treasured brides and mothers for decades, they’ve taken on the rather recent unsolicited role of caregiver. We husbands are deeply appreciative.

My wife, Hedy, had no idea when she “signed on” in 1975 what she was getting into. But, she’s been a trooper — and hasn’t once hinted about going over the hill, AWOL. She deserves the Croix de Guerre for valor.

All wives who sat around that picnic table last week were similarly dedicated.

As I’ve told many people in my circle, if someone in my household had to contract Parkinson’s, better me than Hedy. I have the best caregiver in the world. Had she developed Parkinson’s, I’m afraid she’d be saddled with the most incompetent aide possible.

My father had Parkinson’s during the final decade of his life and never encountered another fellow sufferer. I look back upon his situation now with regret. His life could have been immeasurably enriched had he been exposed to others sharing his condition.

I’ve gained strength, wisdom and compassion over the years from the many Parkinson’s patients I’ve known.

I’ve recently discovered that at least five — male — members of my Costa Mesa High School graduating class (1962) today have Parkinson’s. Out of a class of nearly 400 students, that’s several times the national average. I’m not certain what the statistic means, but it’s slightly unnerving.

Is the disease environmental? Genetic? A combination of the two?

Parkinson’s research proceeds at a steady pace, and answers to many questions may be forthcoming — and perhaps even a cure.

When that happens, maybe I’ll be able to give my caregiver a break!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.