On April 13 Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury (RWC) will host a presentation by Dr. James Bennett, chair of the Department of Neurobiology and founding director of the VCU Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Multidisciplinary Research & Clinical Center. The presentation will begin at 1 p.m. in the auditorium. The public is invited, but reservations are required; call Rita DePew at 804-435-9553 by April 6. RWC will honor reservations in the order received. Additionally, RWC will be displaying a section of the Parkinson’s Quilt in the lobby of the Chesapeake Center. The quilt, a montage of more than 600 panels created by people all over the world, is designed to call attention to the millions of people worldwide living with Parkinson’s. A member of RWC’s Parkinson’s Support Group contributed a square to the quilt.

Over a career spanning thirty years, Bennett has established a reputation as an international authority on Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. His passion for this work began when he was in college. Bennett was a Chemistry major as an undergraduate. He became interested in medicine when a family friend working as a neurosurgeon told him about a patient with Parkinson’s whom he was treating with what was then a new chemical, L-Dopa. “The patient reported that for the first time in years she was able to brush her own teeth,” Bennett said. “I suddenly realized that it was possible for chemistry to change lives.”

Bennett decided to pursue a career that would combine his interest in science with the chance to help people overcome chronic afflictions. During his career he has authored 130 papers and directed research that is leading to a better understanding of Parkinson’s.

Bennett says that in the last ten years researchers have discovered much about how Parkinson’s affects both the brain and body. They have learned that Parkinson’s starts developing long before symptoms become apparent. That is why current investigations are focusing on identifying biomarkers that can provide early evidence of Parkinson’s.

Recent discoveries indicate that in people with Parkinson’s, tissues in the brain start separating from ‘mitochondria,’ the cells that provide energy in the brain. “But there’s a way to counter that separation,” Bennett says. Exercise stimulates activity in mitochondria that may help slow the progression of Parkinson’s.

Informing people about these new discoveries is one of Bennett’s goals as director of VCU’s Center. “Support groups are critically important,” Bennett says. They help those with Parkinson’s but also provide an important outlet for caregivers and supporters to learn new methods of assisting those for whom they give care. The groups also provide a way of disseminating information about new treatment methods.

Bennett is delighted to be coming back to RWC, where he says the Parkinson’s Support Group is well run and well informed. “The people with whom I’ve interacted at RWC are attentive and intelligence. They pay attention when we talk, and they ask some great questions.”

RWC Wellness Coordinator Kori Poplin says the continuing care community began actively supporting individuals with Parkinson’s and their caregivers seven years ago. The “Fit to Move” program provides RWC residents and community members with neuromuscular disorders a chance to participate in group exercises three times a week. RWC also sponsors two support groups, one for individuals with Parkinson’s and their caregivers, and another for care partners. Community members can participate at no charge.