Gwen Duncan Smiles Proudly

In June, a delightful woman got up to use the bathroom feeling weak all over. Before she returned to her bed, she fell down. Pulling on the blankets, her cell phone got to her hands and she pressed 1. Then passed out. Pressing 1 was enough to get her sister’s attention to come downstairs to find her. She woke up in the emergency room as a result of a stroke.

Gwen Duncan was born, raised and has lived her entire 72 years so far in Oakland. She is a middle child of 12 and thankfully, one of her 8 sisters lives upstairs from her. They are very close and help each other daily. Gwen started coming to Center for Elders’ Independence in 2012 recognizing that she needed additional help with her health and daily living.

Starting as quickly as possible

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Physical Therapist Esther Akiba works with Gwen Duncan, 72, control of her legs and feet to strength balance. This is especially important to recover from stroke events.

The stroke happened in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because CEI remained open to provide much needed and essential therapies, Ms. Duncan began her physical and occupational therapy shortly after the stroke happened. Waiting to start would have not have the high positive outcomes she reached. Masks were worn along with other safety protocols during all of her visits.

Our rehab department is specially trained and fully equipped to help seniors recover from strokes, injuries and other life challenges. We have full time staff of both physical and occupational therapists at every center to teach and retrain the body.

“If I want to feel good, I’m coming to CEI. I’ve been a strong-headed person all my life. I’m not going to let this stroke stop me. With the help of CEI, that’s not going to happen,” Ms. Duncan explained. “They teach me what to do and I go home and figure out how to up it one. It keeps my mind sharp.”

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Because of the physical and occupational therapy Ms. Duncan does, she’s now using a walker to get around instead of a wheelchair. Getting this therapy was crucial despite the pandemic.

Taking it to the next level

Esther Akiba is Ms. Duncan’s physical therapist and works the legs for her. “Esther taught me to do circles with my feet. So I did that at home. But then I put a crayon between my toes and drew circles. Even wrote my name!” said a proud Ms. Duncan.

This exercise helps with fine motor movement and keeps the feet connected to the brain. Esther comments, “Seeing Ms. Duncan’s drawings tickled me. But most importantly, it showed me that she has great control of her feet and legs. It’s a big improvement from when she first started physical therapy and was in a wheelchair. Seeing her now using a walker six weeks later is very rewarding.”

To build strength and improve circulation in her legs, Ms. Duncan purchased a stationary bike to use at home. “I get on it every day for as long as I can. Some days, it’s just a few minutes. But most days, it’s about 10 minutes or so on the bike.”

Not all exercises focus on the legs. Taking care of the upper body, occupational therapist Darlyn San Jose coaches her on working the arms. At first, with the onset of her stroke, her left arm was numb to all sensations and her brain no longer had a connection to it. But with the various exercises she does, she feels it all now.

“I do the exercises here at the Center and at home so I can get myself back together. Reconnect my body with my brain. It’s what I want out of these appointments. The best part? It’s working,” Ms. Duncan says as she smiles under her mask.

Gwen Duncan Smiling Under Her Mask
“I do the exercises here at the Center and at home so I can get myself back together. Reconnect my body with my brain. It’s what I want out of these appointments. The best part? It’s working,” Ms. Duncan says as she smiles under her mask.

Reconnecting the body with the brain

Using the larger pegs, then the smaller pegs, Darlyn watched Ms. Duncan rebuild her fine motor skills in her hands. “Being able to grasp these objects and put them in the holes shows stronger nerve connections from the fingers to the brain. It takes time and patience but the payoffs are big,” explains Darlyn. “We learn these skills as a toddler and sometimes we need to relearn them as an adult. These skills help us to write using a pencil or cook a meal.”

The stroke could have left Ms. Duncan with a huge loss of independence. Even though she can’t cook or drive right now, with the assistance of CEI’s rehab therapists and Ms. Duncan’s high motivation, she returned the wheelchair and other home safety equipment. She’s now using a walker and can dress herself again.

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Ms. Duncan is very proud of her accomplishments and celebrates getting better every day.

“Focused on what I can do”

Ms. Duncan explains, “I focus on what I can do, not on what I can’t do. No one wants to hear what you can’t do any more. That’s how you keep people away. But focus on what I can do…people here at CEI cheer me on and that encourages me to keep doing what I can do even better.”