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Summit County physical therapists promote brain health at their practices

Rich Bender, 79, of Silverthorne, works on his balance with physical therapist Stephanie Sauer at Axis Sports Medicine in Silverthorne on Thursday, Sept. 10. Bender recently suffered a series of ministrokes.
Photo by Jason Connolly / Jason Connolly Photography

KEYSTONE — For people with neurological conditions, participating in physical therapy can mean the difference between living life and surviving it. 

In Summit County, physical therapists treat patients with all kinds of neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, strokes and more. While every patient is different, there’s one key component to their treatment: keeping the mind active. 

“There’s an old saying, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it,’” said Gini Patterson, physical therapist and executive director of the Timberline Adult Day Program. “That applies to our brains, not just our muscles.”

Patterson has primarily worked with patients with dementia and memory loss for the nearly 40 years as both a physical therapist and caregiver. As a physical therapist, Patterson’s primary goal is to ensure the safety of the patient. 

“I always look out for their fall risk,” she said. “A decline in their condition can contribute to their fall risk. I look at how safe they are in their home setting.”

She said the key to her work is letting the patients do the activities that they enjoy. For most of those patients, that activity is walking.

“Walking is so essential for people with memory impairment or dementia,” Patterson said. “It gets them outdoors, in fresh air, seeing some new scenery.” 

It’s not just patients suffering from dementia that benefit from physical therapy, however. Ami Doyle, a physical therapist with Axis Sports Medicine in Silverthorne, said she exercises the brain with all patients, even those who aren’t dealing with a neurological condition. 

“It’s amazing how much of the neuro component comes into play with any patient that walks in the door,” Doyle said. 

Much of Doyle’s work centers around balance. She has patients stand on unstable surfaces and devices to help get them back to stability. She also works on eye-tracking to connect the patient’s brain with their body. 

“We’re going to challenge the patient in a variety of ways to prepare them for the outgoing world, to prepare them to get back on their cross-country skis, their Alpine skis, their bike and hiking,” she said. 

Physical therapists often spend much more time with patients who have neurological conditions than patients with orthopedic injuries. 

“These patients that have these neurological conditions that are a lifelong diagnoses, they are going to be in and out of physical therapy for a long time,” Doyle said. “Versus somebody that has an orthopedic injury — that ACL rehab patient — ideally can go through their rehab in a three-, six-, nine-month period.”

Gini Patterson, physical therapist and executive director at Timberline Adult Day Program, is pictured with former patient Frank Walter, for whom she cared for five years so he could remain safely at his home in Copper Mountain. Walter died in March.
Photo from Gini Patterson / Timberline Adult Day Program

Patterson said she once had a patient whom she worked with for five years. For patients with dementia, part of the work is establishing a support system and connections, which is one of the primary goals of Timberline. 

Patterson said two women with Alzheimer’s at Timberline, who are 60 and 98 years old, spend days walking together because they enjoy the company. 

“Whether you’re 60 or 98, the age span is irrelevant,” she said. “It’s more that they support each other, they have a common interest in going for a walk together and socializing together.”

Regardless of why a person would need physical therapy, there’s no doubt it supports the most important organ in the body: the brain. 

“Physical therapy definitely helps promote brain health through appropriate exercises that can vary from one person to the next,” Patterson said.


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