Living with Parkinson's Disease

Posted: April 24, 2012

Keith Shank, who learned he had Parkinson’s Disease at age 46, feeds his beagle mix Casey a treat outside their Dayton home. (Photo by Florence Barrett)

DAYTON — Nine years ago, Keith Shank noticed a tremor in his right hand. He ignored it at first, but suspected Parkinson’s Disease. He knew the symptoms all too well. In 1996, his dad had died of the disease at age 67.

“July 14 2004. I walked away that day with the diagnosis of Parkinson’s,” Shank said. “I went into shock. I didn’t know what to think.”

He was 46 years old.

Since then, Shank has worked hard to manage the disease and help others. He will facilitate a Parkinson Symposium May 5 in Fishersville. April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month and Shank shared his story with Journals readers. 

Going On With Life

When Shank was first diagnosed, he was still able to function “and I went on with life.”
Shank continued working as a counselor with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board and completed a three-year program at James Madison University for his masters in counseling and a degree as an educational specialist.

“I always wanted to further my education beyond high school. I always wanted to be a counselor,” he said. Shank had been a furniture and cabinetmaker. He and his brother Ray owned R&K Woodworking in Clover Hill.

But his health continued to deteriorate. He was also diagnosed with neuropathy, which caused chronic pain and numbness in his legs and feet. “The two [diseases] together are not a good combination,” Shank said.

By 2007, he was missing so much work, Shank retired from his job.  Although his prospects for a bright future left him angry and depressed, he was determined to live a full life.

He started attending Blue Ridge Church of Christ in Fishersville and his faith began to deepen, Shank said. “I felt like that’s what got me through and it still helps me today to maintain—my relationship with God.”

Shank also reached out to others. He founded the Fishersville Parkinson Support Group that still meets at Blue Ridge Church of Christ the first Saturday of each month.

“I felt like when I moved [to Dayton] that that was my baby and I wanted to stick with it,” he said.

Every other month, Shank brings in speakers. Alternate months, the gathering divides into two groups—members with Parkinson’s and their caregivers—so they can share experiences they’re not comfortable sharing with a spouse or loved one.
“I stress confidentially. They can talk about whatever’s on their mind,” said Shank.

In honor of a member who had passed away, Shank and members organized a symposium in 2008. It was so well-attended, the group decided to offer it each year. An average of about 50 people attend, some traveling to Fishershville from as far away as Roanoke and Front Royal.

That same year, life also presented Shank with a “storybook romance.” He began dating his future wife, Wanda. The couple married in 2009.

But Shank let her know “right up front” about his diagnosis. She attended his support group meetings and read about the disease.
And when she accepted his marriage proposal, Shank asked her if she was sure.

“She thought I was joking, he said, “but it’s asking a lot of her.”

“It is a bit scary, but it boils down to who he is and I love him,” said Wanda Shank. “We enjoy life each day. We enjoy what we have.”

She encourages her husband to follow doctor recommendations: rest, exercise, watch his diet and use his cane.

“Sometimes I just don’t feel like bugging him and he just doesn’t want to be bugged,” she said.

His cell phone alarm also serves as a reminder to take his medication.

“I can tell if I miss a dose if I’m napping, I pay the price,” he said.

Parkinson’s and the meds sometimes cause him to sleep all day and misses meals, Shank said.

He doesn’t function as well in cold weather and his depression is more pronounced in the winter. But rigidity and pain are his worst symptoms—only 30 percent of people with Parkinson’s have tremors, he said.

“The disease affects people differently,” Keith Shank said. “It is so unpredictable. But by the grace of God, mine has been fairly slow.”

Because the disease’s progression is slow, Shank has been able to work again as a counselor 12 hours a week, he said. “That’s about all my stamina allows.”

Through it all, the Shanks keep their sense of humor, they said. He’ll sometimes joke about what type of wheelchair he’ll need or which nursing home he’ll live in. In the past when people ask how he was, he’d quip,  “‘I’m pretty good for the most part, but a little shaky sometimes.’ People don’t know how to take it. I don’t do it so much anymore.”

“You have to have a sense of humor,” Wanda Shank said. “You have to be able to laugh.”

The couple also keeps active with visits from their blended families, services at Dayton United Methodist Church and camping trips.

And Keith Shank continues to offer support to others, sharing what has given him strength to deal with Parkinson’s Disease. He often travels throughout the state giving talks about “spirituality as a coping mechanism,” he said. “I look at spirituality as a medicine now. It’s available 24-7. I can’t overdose on it and it always seems to help.”

On May 5, the Parkinson Disease Symposium will be at the Blue Ridge Church of Christ, at 1275 Goose Creek Rd., in Fishersville, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. The free event is hosted by the Fishersville Parkinson Support Group, which is coordinated by Keith Shank.  He will facilitate the symposium with guest speakers associated with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center. Lunch will be provided. Reservations are needed by April 30 for preparations. To RSVP or for directions, call 255-1847 or email To learn more about Parkinson’s Disease, visit


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