Sparking Spontaneous Connections with Robert Cochrane, PhD - PMD Alliance

The Improvisational Magic of the ALL IN! Summit

There’s a great recent photo of Robert Cochrane and his dad, Dan. Robert’s wearing a “Run Happy” baseball cap and a T-shirt that says, “Relax. It’s just F’N Parkinson’s,” with a race bib—number 6235—pinned to it. He’s got a giant smile on his face, the kind that makes his eyes squint.

Dan, in his blue cap and black shades, is sitting in the running chair Robert’s pushing. He, too, is smiling and clapping his hands. As Robert would later describe it—their 26.2 miles together for Disney Marathon weekend—“There was the thunder of the crowds as Dad and I would roll by and the way they cheered louder as Dad clapped along with them.”

Dan had always been an avid runner and, after over two decades living with Parkinson’s, he thought he’d never be able to feel the joy of racing again. But as Robert told me, that day, his dad felt seen and whole. We’re all just looking to be seen and whole.

The Power of Community

A few months prior, Robert, the founder of Yes, And…eXercise, improvisational workshops for the PD community, was at PMD Alliance’s ALL IN! Summit as a keynote speaker. The summit was a national, in-person gathering in the heart of the nation’s capital, convening more than 200 prospective & practicing support group leaders from around the country to connect, collaborate, and embrace the magic that happens when we come together to learn. The pandemic took a toll on support groups, with nearly 30% of groups disappearing. PMD Alliance was ready to step in and provide leaders with the tools and resources to build sustainable groups.

Referring back to race day with his dad and our universal need to be seen and whole, Robert said, that’s what was extraordinary about ALL IN! “Whether you are a pharma rep or a provider for a wellness program or a person with Parkinson’s or a care partner, ALL IN! gave everyone a chance to see each other as whole people. After two years of social isolation, there was a hunger to come together, and PMD Alliance recognized that and helped heal that and gave people more confidence to keep connecting and keep reaching out. That’s what we need to do. We need to just keep touching each other.” 

Robert was saying what science has proven: our wellbeing is not only impacted by good medications and therapies. Whether you’re living or loving someone with a movement disorder, to live well today, we need each other. We need to feel seen and connected. We thrive in community. 

Sparking Spontaneous Connections

At Yes, And…eXercise, they have a saying: “Come as you are.” “It allows people to be themselves,” Robert said, and to join in no matter how they’re feeling that day. “People see us laughing and having a good time and sometimes they think, ‘I’m in a bad mood. I better not show up. I’m just going to bring everyone down.’” But at the beginning of every workshop, they do a check-in. Sometimes, it might be to finish the sentence, “I feel…” Robert continued, “and someone might be like, ‘Today, I feel like crap. And I almost didn’t show up.’” 

That’s when the group follows the fundamental rules of improv: “yes, and…” Essentially, they roll with it. They say, “Awesome, thanks for being visible and vulnerable. You’re so brave for showing up and acknowledging how you feel.” Robert added, “We don’t try to change them or make them feel different. We acknowledge them: you’re still welcome even when you’re feeling like crap.”

“We are all in,” he said, for themselves and each other, which is why he resonated so fully with the ALL IN! Summit. 

In fact, he believes the magic of ALL IN! was that it was designed to create those spontaneous spaces of connection—those roll-with-it “yes, and” moments. “Rather than talking at us the whole time, PMD Alliance built this intentional white space that encouraged more community.” It wasn’t some buttoned-up conference; it brought everyone together as “whole-hearted and whole people.” 

Robert went on, “The most dynamic thing happened on the first night. In those white spaces, someone brought up the idea of karaoke. I heard karaoke and was like, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ And, like wildfire, people started saying, ‘Me, too.’ ‘Me, too.’ ‘Me, too.’ That night on the spot, we ended up going to a karaoke bar. The bar would have had six people without us and about thirty of us went and took over the place. It was an amazing group; every person sang. They weren’t just there to watch. And as every person from our group sang, the rest of us would half-circle around them, cheer them on, bring them forward. It was this beautiful moment of shared yes, and.” 

What the summit did so intentionally was spark free-form, meaningful human connection. It allowed people to see each other beyond a movement disorder. “That night,” Robert said, “it wasn’t about Parkinson’s. It was about connecting. It broke down a lot of barriers and gave a lot of smiles and stories for the next three days.” 

The same thing happened the next morning when Jimmy Choi, the three-time world record holder and American Ninja Warrior who’s living with PD, suddenly said, “Hey, let’s run down to the gym!” And everyone rolled with it. “Twenty of us ran down there with him as he took us through a high intensity interval training workout.” They were moving together, sweating together, laughing together. Connecting on a whole-person, human level. This, again, was not about Parkinson’s. “So that’s why we come together at summits like ALL IN!,” Robert said, “because those moments resonate for months, maybe a lifetime.” 

A New Frontier: Social Prescribing

When I asked Robert which presentation at the Summit stuck with him most, he couldn’t stop listing breakout sessions and keynotes that spoke to him. He loved Cheryl Choi’s session for care partners. “That specific lens doesn’t get talked about enough,” he said. “Care partners need equal space on a humanistic level, as do wellness and medical practitioners. It’s not just, ‘What do you do?’ but ‘Who are you? What do you like to do?’” He resonated with Bradley McDaniels, PhD, and his profound insight on cultivating deeper meaning after a Parkinson’s diagnosis. He said Jimmy Choi was amazing—”he’s always amazing.” And that “Larry Gifford brought down the house.” 

But it was a line from David Leventhal, the founding teacher and Program Director of Dance for PD®, that really struck him. David said, “The arts need to be prescribed the same way as pharmaceuticals.” 

He was getting to the heart of ALL IN!. “Isolation is an illness,” Robert said. “People with Parkinson’s often say they’ve lost friendships, they’ve lost family connections, or that those relationships have become transactional instead of relational.” But in spaces like ALL IN!, we restore them. Here’s this whole person, again.” 

Building connection through support groups, exercise groups, and other community spaces is not just a luxury; it’s pivotal to our wellbeing.

Raising Up the Whole Community

As our conversation wound down, Robert talked about the relationships he built at the summit; about finally meeting in-person the friends he had only ever met on Zoom screens; about building new connections that have mutually supported each other’s work. He loved that PMD Alliance was committed to “integration,” to understanding that all these disparate parts of the Movement Disorder Care & Support Ecosystem© aren’t actually separate: for everyone impacted by a movement disorder to thrive, they must work together. 

Most organizations, out of a fear of scarcity, he said, work in silos. But at ALL IN!, PMD Alliance brought everyone together—across the Ecosystem© and across organizations and across the country. 

“Raising up the whole community?” Robert said. “That’s what we’re here for.”

Interconnected, we are immeasurably strong and resilient. 


Read more about Robert and Dan here.

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