Following a successful community forum earlier this year, the Alzheimer’s Association kickstarted the next phase of its goal to expand outreach to Kaufman with a duo of training sessions last week.
Throughout the early part of this year, the Dallas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association hosted a number of community forums across its coverage area, which includes 34 counties stretching across the northeastern part of the state. The goal of these forums was to learn about the needs of each community and collect information to help the association develop a plan to expand their outreach in those areas.
Across the board, what they found was that there was a real lack of understanding between what normal aging is and how to identify the signs of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Megan Rowe, who has worked with the Alzheimer’s Association for much of the decade, helped organize the forums and said she also found that many community members weren’t aware of just how many people are affected by Alzheimer’s disease in the United States.
In total, nearly 6 million Americans are diagnosed with the disease, which accounts for approximately 10 percent of the total U.S. population aged over 65. But Alzheimer’s isn’t an isolated disease that affects just one person; in addition to those afflicted there are 16 million Americans who the Alzheimer’s Association would designate as “caregivers,” people who help take care of friends, family members or patients who have Alzheimer’s.
But what disturbs Rowe the most is that in many cases, particularly in rural areas, Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia will go undiagnosed despite the warning signs simply because friends and family members aren’t aware of what those symptoms are or, even more importantly, what they can do about it. Others are aware of the issues but choose to hide and ignore them rather than address them.
“It’s almost like a denial thing,” Rowe said. “That happens a lot. There’s a lot of stigma, too. People hide this in their families. And I think it starts to become really challenging in the rural areas because isolation happens and people stop going to their normal things and isolate themselves. But if the community is educated on this, they’ll know where to get resources or hopefully will access care.”
Rowe and the Alzheimer’s Association is hopeful that the first of the two training sessions they hosted at the First Baptist Church in Kaufman last Thursday will help those dealing with these and similar issues. In addition to last week’s session, Rowe says the First Baptist Church will also be hosting a regular caregiver support group, which is something that the association wants to help establish in every community in their coverage area.
“They are an opportunity for people to get together to connect with others going through the same journey with their loved ones,” Rowe said. “Most people are on different parts of the journey, so it’s an opportunity to vent, to get emotional support, to just connect with others. Because no matter how many friends you have, nobody knows what you’re going through other than other people going through something similar.”
One of the most important aspects of a caregiver’s life that being a part of a support group aids with is the isolation that inherently comes with tending for a loved one who, in some cases, can no longer speak. Imelda Aguirre, who is focusing on expanding the Alzheimer’s Association’s reach in six counties including Kaufman, says this experience is critical for a caregiver’s own mental health.
“Isolation is one of the things that caregivers experience,” Aguirre said. “And these support groups are a really good way to keep them away from being isolated.”
Rowe was pleased with the turnout; the caregiver support group training was attended by 17 people, which she calls “the largest training that I’ve had probably since I’ve been with the association.” But the support group training was only part of the equation. Rowe and Aguirre also oversaw a separate training for people they call “community educators,” people in the community who can help the association spread education and awareness throughout their own communities.
“Education in the communities is really important for us to be able to expand, especially in rural areas,” Aguirre said. “This training was really about empowering them to go out there and use our resources, materials and curriculum, and be empowered to go out into the communities. These are folks that are connected to their community very strongly.”
Both Rowe and Aguirre have been impressed with the connectivity of Kaufman; Aguirre frequents the monthly coalition meetings with community members from across Kaufman’s professional sphere and even gave a presentation at July’s meeting. And they’re hopeful that those who attended the community educator training will be able to use what they’ve learned, complete the program associated with becoming an educator, and continue to educate the Kaufman community.
“This community is very connected and supportive and I think that the healthcare professionals are knowledgeable,” Rowe said. “But I think that there is always opportunity for increased education. The reason we had this training is because we’re going to be having education programs, but we need volunteers to help deliver those.”
“There’s not time to wait,” Aguirre added. “It’s urgent. I think we’re off to a good start and hopefully they will go out there and represent.”