Meet Leon Paparella: Parkinson’s Support Group Facilitator

April 30, 2018

My last blog post about Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month gave you information and resources about Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation’s theme for this year’s Parkinson’s Awareness Month is “Start a Conversation.” Earlier this month, I had the privilege of starting a conversation with Leon Paparella, M.S.W., CGP, who leads Iona’s weekly Parkinson’s disease support group.

Leon’s Experience

To speak to Leon is to hear him draw from decades of experience in group psychotherapy as well as in Parkinson’s disease advocacy. Leon has worked in mental health since 1969. When he received his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 1987, his history and skills in group psychotherapy made him uniquely able to support and advocate for others with the diagnosis.

Besides his support group at Iona, Leon runs several other support groups in the DMV, teaches at the Walter Reed Hospital and the Washington School of Psychiatry, runs a private practice, and writes articles and blog posts. One such article, “Group Psychotherapy and Parkinson’s Disease: When Members and Therapist Share the Diagnosis,” was published in the International Journal of Group Psychotherapy in 2004.

Parkinson’s Support Groups

Several of Leon’s Parkinson’s groups, including Iona’s, are offered in partnership with the Parkinson’s Foundation of the National Capital Area, where Leon has served as Support Group Specialist since 2001. Leon emphasizes that while many other organizations focused on Parkinson’s disease use their funding for continuing research on the disease, the Parkinson’s Foundation of the National Capital Area uses its funding exclusively for ongoing services. This ensures that DC area residents with Parkinson’s have access to free services, such as exercise classes, support groups including those Leon runs, lectures and symposia, and more.

Currently, Leon runs five support groups for people with Parkinson’s disease and for care partners. Meetings are typically held at churches or at community centers or agencies such as Iona. Some of Leon’s groups have been going for almost two decades, though the members vary over time. Leon’s group meetings do not have set topics or goals. He “leads by following”, listening to the thoughts and comments members bring to the group and reflecting them back for discussion.

Challenges and Triumphs

This is not easy work. Leon says the biggest fear among group members is the risk of developing cognitive and executive function issues. Not everyone with Parkinson’s develops these, but they become more common with age. For Leon, as his own Parkinson’s disease progresses, the worry of “Can I do this?” persists, but he says he is lucky to have colleagues who listen to and support him.

And the work itself is immensely gratifying. The best part of the job, for Leon, is the satisfaction he receives by doing this extremely important and worthwhile work. He is known and valued in both the group therapy and Parkinson’s disease communities, due to his unique position as a group psychotherapist with Parkinson’s. Leon is able to bridge the gap between the professional communities focused on chronic medical conditions and psychotherapy and mental health, bringing “mind” and “body” together.

Iona is very lucky to have Leon’s expertise and support. For more information on Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s Awareness Month, take a look at our previous blog post, or contact Iona directly at (202) 895-9448.

By Indy Weinstein.

Indy Weinstein is an intern at Iona. They graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland last year with a BA in History, and are excited to learn about nonprofit management and aging. 

Photo courtesy of former support group participant John Schappi’s blog “Aging and Parkinson’s and Me.” John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009, at age 90. He wrote, “My diagnosis with Parkinson’s Disease in September 2009 at age 80 gave my life a new focus and challenge. Finding ways to meet this challenge helped make 2010 the best year of my life. I hope this blog will be a place where I can connect with others who also are dealing with aging and its afflictions and attractions so that we can share our ‘experience, strength and hope.'” John passed away on February 21, 2018.