Hispanic community confronts Alzheimer's disease

File/Daily Citizen-News

Eva Rodriguez, left, support group co-facilitator and community educator for the Alzheimer's Association in Northwest Georgia and director of the Latin American Association's Northwest Georgia Outreach Center, talks with LaRay Ramey, programs director for the Alzheimer's Association's North Georgia Service Area, during a community forum in December 2019 at the Mack Gaston Community Center in Dalton.

DALTON, Ga. — During Hispanic Heritage Month, which concludes on Thursday, the Alzheimer’s Association is pressing into the Hispanic community to increase awareness about a disease that disproportionately impacts that population.

Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than non-Hispanic whites, so it’s important they “understand the high risk they can have,” said LaRay Ramey, programs director for the Alzheimer’s Association’s North Georgia Service Area. “We want to help educate the community,” but there are barriers, such as language.

Ramey has a work group of Dr. Juan Gonzalez, a neurologist with Hamilton Health Care System; Estela Ramirez, support group co-facilitator and community educator for the Alzheimer’s Association in Northwest Georgia; Veronica Raymundo, facilitator for the all-Spanish Alzheimer’s support group in Whitfield County and social worker for the Latin American Association in Northwest Georgia; and Eva Rodriguez, support group co-facilitator and community educator alongside Ramirez and director of the Latin American Association’s Northwest Georgia Outreach Center.

“They are like my lifeline,” especially in a county that is more than a third Hispanic, Ramey said. “I realized I was a barrier, not speaking Spanish, and Eva and I hit it off right away.” 

The Alzheimer’s Association’s desire to reach into the Hispanic community coupled with the Latin American Association’s mission of empowering Latinos made a partnership natural, Rodriguez said, noting, “They go hand in hand.” 

“They’d been wanting to partner with us, and Eva and Veronica are in the Hispanic community every day” due to their roles with the Latin American Association, Ramey said. Ramirez is “a fantastic community educator, always willing to learn and advocate for Latinos, and she’s very vibrant,” while Gonzalez “is very passionate about taking care of the Latino and Hispanic” population. Due to a family-oriented culture that prizes caring for aging relatives within the family unit, discussions about Alzheimer’s and dementia can be problematic, but “this is a conversation we need to have,” Rodriguez said. Individuals can’t afford to shrug off symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia as mere “normal aging.” 

By 2060, the number of Latinos 65 and older is expected to nearly quadruple, and Latinos will face the largest increase in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias cases of any racial/ethnic group in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Latinos also tend to develop symptoms at a younger age than non-Latino whites.

“We’re going to keep plugging away, trying to provide information, and it was really going well until the (COVID-19) pandemic happened,” Ramey said. However, she hopes to debut virtual education sessions for Spanish speakers next month, and “hopefully by the first of the year we can get our (Spanish) support group up and going again.” 

The support group is key to the Hispanic outreach effort, Rodriguez said. With support from others, “they don’t feel like they are going through this all by themselves.” 

“We also need local vendors in the (local Hispanic) community to help get the word out,” Ramey said. “We need those business owners to promote our educations to help the community.” 

Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurological disorder characterized by symptoms including memory loss, judgment impairment, disorientation, personality change and loss of language skills. Currently, there is no cure.

There’s a reluctance among some in the Hispanic community to place relatives in long-term care facilities, but, sometimes, that is the only possibility to provide adequate care, Rodriguez said. Simply connecting caregivers with resources can be enough to avoid disasters. For example, in one scenario, Rodriguez was approached by a woman following an outreach event, and “you could see there was lots of emotion there,” she said. The woman explained she was challenged to find resources that would help her care for her mother, who’s battling Alzheimer’s/dementia, and she was considering quitting her longtime job to be a full-time caregiver.

Rodriguez connected her with resources at the local and state levels of the Alzheimer’s Association, and she didn’t have to resign from her job, but “there are so many people here in this community making these life-changing decisions,” she said. “That motivates me to get out there even more.”

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