PEORIA — Until she joined LOUD Crowd, Diana Bowman couldn’t understand why people were ignoring her when she spoke.

During the weekly voice therapy session for people with Parkinson’s disease, Bowman learned she simply wasn’t being heard — she was speaking too softly.

“Now people are paying more attention to me,” said Bowman, who reports feeling more confident interacting with others. She has learned to talk with intention, a skill she works on every week in LOUD Crowd at OSF HealthCare Rehabilitation at 6501 N. Sheridan Road in Peoria.

Because of changes in the brain, Parkinson’s patients slowly lose their ability to speak. They may think they are talking at a normal level when in fact they are very quiet and monotone. Their words may slur. Parkinson’s can also alter the speed in which people talk — some speak slower and some get faster.

“With Parkinson’s you can’t ever stop voice therapy,” said Brittany Heidemann, a speech language pathologist with OSF HealthCare. “You have to practice every day to maintain this new level of communication.”

While short-term speech therapy for Parkinson’s patients has been around for a long time, LOUD Crowd is new to central Illinois. Developed by the Parkinson Voice Project, LOUD Crowd takes up where short-term, one-on-one therapy ends. Heidemann saw a need for a long-term program when she applied for a grant to bring the program to OSF HealthCare. Patients frequently stop doing their voice exercises after therapy ends — forgetfulness and a lack of drive are part of the disease.

“Every single person in this class had stopped doing their exercises at home,” said Heidemann.

Each class begins with exercises which open the throat and encourage a range of tone. Loudness is encouraged. Since Parkinson’s patients often have trouble finding the right words, cognitive exercises are also a part of therapy.

“OK, now I need you each to say a type of candy,” said Mandy Champion, the speech language pathologist who led the recent session.

Richard Schneider thought for a minute before saying “Snickers, I eat enough of them.”

Barb Halleen offered “M&M’s,” while John Schmidt said “English toffee.”

In keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme, participants were asked to recall a term of endearment during the next exercise.

“Sweetie,” said Ernie Traeger.

“My bride,” said Schmidt.

“You are my sunshine,” said Scott Bollone, to which the therapist replied “Good — can you throw one of those words?” Bollone repeated the phrase with an emphasis on “SUNSHINE!”

Attending the weekly meeting holds another advantage for participants — they are being seen regularly by therapists who can pull them in for more intensive therapy if they need it. Participants are also regularly monitored for swallowing issues, a frequent problem for Parkinson’s patients.

“One of our goals is to decrease cases of aspiration pneumonia,” said Heidemann. “It’s the number two reason people with Parkinson’s go into the hospital. Falls are the number one reason.”

For participants, some who drive a long distance to attend the weekly sessions, LOUD Crowd is a way to stay on track with their voice therapy in a supportive, social setting. The camaraderie is a real bonus.

“Everybody here is going through the same thing,” said Bowman. “It makes you feel good cause you are not the only one.”

People interested in joining LOUD Crowd need a referral from their neurologist or primary care physician for speech therapy. Participants will first go through one-on-one therapy before transitioning into LOUD Crowd, which is not billed to insurance. Attendees pay a $10 monthly fee and can attend indefinitely. The effort can provide great reward through the course of the degenerative illness, said Heidemann.

“If they come to LOUD Crowd consistently and continue their exercises at home, they’re gonna keep their voice at some level, if not get better.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.