Since retiring from her 30-year career in social work, Gail Buckley pursues her passions of mentoring young women, traveling the world, and making art. In addition to serving on PCLA’s Board of Directors, she has served for many years on the Board of her family’s charitable foundation, which supports educational and health related causes. Gail has been living with Parkinson’s disease for seven years. 

Gail, you will be participating in “Living Artistically” for the second time this year. Would you tell us about your life as an artist?

Oh, I don’t consider myself an artist! My son is an artist and always was – from the time he could hold a crayon, he was creating. After school, he became a photographer and now he is a full-time artist.

For me it was always a hobby. I was a potter for years and taught ceramics at The Clayhouse in Santa Monica, but then my Parkinson’s got in the way. I lost the strength in my hands and couldn’t handle large quantities of clay. My specialty had been making large vessels for ikebana [a Japanese flower-arranging art dating back to the 7th century]. I was taking commissions for those pieces for a while, but I had to give that up and consider what else I could do. I had always wanted to paint and I love the look of watercolor, so I started taking classes. Painting gives me great pleasure now. I think art is so good for the brain – it’s brain exercise. I still love taking classes and my art teachers over the years have talked about how good art making is for keeping the brain nimble – they encourage me to give myself challenging projects.

You mentioned switching gears with your art practice when Parkinson’s presented new challenges.  How do you find life as an artist with PD these days?

One PD symptom that impacts my art is my visual and spatial issues. I first noticed this with things like parking – I would think I was parked perfectly but I would be several feet from the curb. I had trouble judging the distance between myself and other cars while driving, and I started having double vision, as well. I gave up driving, of course, but these issues have created a real brain challenge when I’m trying to translate things to paper. I can SEE it, but my brain won’t let my hand draw it. So, I’m trying to find things to help minimize those challenges. I recently tried using a light box to allow me to create outlines to get things down on paper, and I’ve tried other methods, as well. It is challenging working around these issues, but I think like a problem solver – and this is just another problem to solve. 

What are you working on now?

Where I live now there is a large art studio and I take three classes a week with excellent teachers. Right now I’m working on some things for “Living Artistically.” My son will be helping me select some pieces to submit for the exhibition. He has shown a lot of interest in my work, which makes me happy, because I respect his vision. 

We can’t wait to see them in September! Let’s talk more about your life with Parkinson’s. Would you share your diagnosis story with us? 

Back in 2004 I noticed I had this funny bouncing leg – it would bounce while I was sitting down. If I took my foot off the floor it would stop. I mentioned it to my internist and it was recommended that I see a neurologist.  The neurologist said it might be something neurological but that there was nothing to worry about at the moment. But it continued. So in 2008 I saw another neurologist and he did what I now realize are all the PD tests. He said he couldn’t diagnose me with anything just yet – we’ll just “wait and see,” he said. 

In November 2011 I was at the movies and my left hand began to tremor. I just immediately knew it was Parkinson’s. I didn’t even know anyone with PD, but somehow I knew. I made an appointment to go back to the neurologist I’d seen in 2008 – in the meantime he’d become my husband’s neurologist, following a stroke he had. I walked into the office and I said: “I have Parkinson’s.” So they ran me through the tests again and when he came back he said: “I have bad news and good news.” The bad news was I had Parkinson’s…the good news was that it had taken a long time to develop. He made a prediction that I could expect a relatively slow, easy course with my PD, and that I’d have a tremor, primarily, and probably not gait issues. 

Being a social worker by profession I immediately went into problem-solving mode. “OK, what do we do next?” I cried every day for several months…but in the meantime I looked for what to do next. I found a great support group right away; I started dancing with Dancing Through Parkinson’s. As the neurologist predicted, my PD has remained pretty mild.  

You mentioned dancing. Is there other exercise that you’ve taken up since Parkinson’s?

For the first four of five years with PD I was also doing Pilates and Tai Chi. As the exercises got easier for me I continued to look for more challenging things. I’ve also been doing physical therapy for a long time. I have a bad lower back, and that started to make Pilates and other exercises difficult. I discovered that walking with a walker keeps me balanced, and keeps my back from hurting! So now I go everywhere with my walker. It’s gone around the world with me. 

Speaking of going around the world, I know you are passionate about travel. Do you have any favorite destinations you’d like to share with us?

I LOVE to travel. I feel better when I travel. When you travel you are – hopefully – leaving your everyday issues behind. I started traveling when I was in college – my parents traveled a lot with Elderhostel, which is now called Road Scholar [a non-profit offering educational tours geared toward older adults]. They would get all the catalogs and my husband and I would drool over them and say we couldn’t wait to be “old enough” to go on the trips! I’ve done over 80 programs with Road Scholar. 

As for favorite trips, there have been so many. There are so many places I’ve been that I would love to visit again. South Africa is one. If you love nature and you want to see the “big five” doing their thing, that’s the place to go [the “big five” game are the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo]. I loved Australia and New Zealand and would love to go back. Vietnam and Thailand, too. 

On my bucket list to visit are the Ayeyarwady River in Burma, Iceland, Greenland…so many others! I want to do Egypt but it might be challenging. I don’t get fatigued easily from the walking but sometimes the days on trips like that are very long. I’m working with a travel agent to put together a tour customized to my needs. 

I made sure the travel bug bit the whole family.  My son and his family are in Greece right now. They’ve rented a house in the small village where my daughter-in-law’s family came from. I’ve taken them and my granddaughter on a cruise through Holland, and a cruise to Alaska. Next year we’re all going to Costa Rica. I’m sure they’re going to love it.

Do you have any tips for people with PD who would like to travel more?

Cruising can be a great way to travel for people with PD. Cruising is much easier than other types of travel – you get to see several different places, but you just unpack once! If you’re not up for going on the onshore excursion one day you can just enjoy all the ship has to offer, or maybe leave the ship but just sit at a park or café and people watch, if you’re not feeling up to walking. I would recommend starting with a river cruise, maybe one of the European river cruises. 

Thank you so much Gail, it’s been great speaking with you. Any closing words for our community?

I just want to note that support from the PD community has been very important to me, from the beginning. Up until recently I was still attending three different support groups! One of the positive things that has come out of life with Parkinson’s is that I’ve made some wonderful friends.

Parkinson’s Community LA