By Rich Pollack
Gail Milhous knows firsthand the toll Parkinson’s disease can take on a family as well as on those stricken with the neurological disease. For 30 years she watched her mother battle Parkinson’s, with her symptoms getting worse as the disease progressed.
“The last 15 years were the worst,” says Milhous, whose mother died in 2006.
Out of her experience as a daughter and caregiver, Milhous has emerged as a relentless patient advocate and a tireless ambassador on a national level for the Parkinson’s Foundation and its local chapter.
“I’m still very passionate about helping the people who have the disease and making their lives better,” she says.
A resident of east Boca Raton, Milhous has served eight years on the foundation’s national board of directors and is an active supporter of the organization’s South Palm Beach County chapter. She and her husband, Robert, who made his living in real estate and printing, will be honored during the local chapter’s inaugural Sequins and Sparkle gala, April 14 at the Woodfield Country Club in Boca Raton.
“Our chapter is very lucky to have Gail,” said Robin Miller, executive director of the South County chapter. “Her personality, passion and generosity and love of community are amazing.”
In her role as an ambassador for both the national and local groups, Milhous helps get the word out about the work being done on behalf of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
She also helps with fundraising and volunteer recruitment efforts, connecting others in the community to the local chapter.
“She has opened up many doors connecting us to people who are just so helpful,” Miller says.
Milhous is also a strong supporter of the chapter’s annual fashion show, helping to recruit sponsors and other guests.
“She and her friends are like little sparkles in the community,” Miller said.
As a member of the national Parkinson’s Foundation board, Milhous provides leadership to help determine the direction of efforts to improve quality of life for patients and to assist with research into ways to better treat and manage the disease.
Her own years as a caregiver gave Milhaus, 73, a rare perspective.
“She is a national board member who really gets it,” Miller said.
That wasn’t always the case. Before her mother was diagnosed, Milhous knew little about the disease. Her mother was in her early 50s when Milhous and other family members began to suspect something wasn’t quite right.
“I noticed she was shuffling when she walked and her speech was softer,” she said.
A doctor’s visit later confirmed that her mother had Parkinson’s, but Milhous didn’t really understand the extent of the impact it would have on her and her family.
“I didn’t know enough at the time to say, ‘Oh no,’ ” she said.
From that point on, however, she set out to learn as much as she could and to get a better understanding of the disease. The information she gathered and her experience as a caregiver to a loved one help her when she talks to other people who are either living with Parkinson’s or caring for someone. She is always willing to talk with families or patients to share advice that comes from her experience.
Milhous reminds them that people with Parkinson’s — a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that usually impairs the motor system — still have good cognitive abilities even though their bodies betray them.
“The person with Parkinson’s gets easily dismissed because of their appearance,” she said.
Patience and understanding, she said, are critical.
Thanks in part to the Parkinson’s Foundation’s efforts, awareness of the disease is growing, as are the services and resources available to patients and caregivers.
“I’m so excited about how much we’ve accomplished and how much we’ve learned,” Milhous said. “To me, if you’re making a difference, there’s nothing better.”
To find out more visit www.Parkinson.org. ;
If You Go
What: Sequins and Sparkle
When: 7-11 p.m. April 14
Where: Woodfield Country Club, Boca Raton
Honoring: Gail and Robert Milhous
Benefiting: Parkinson’s Foundation South Palm Beach County chapter
Info: 962-1702 or www.parkinson.org/southpalmbeachcounty