By Charles D. Allen
The national theme for Black History Month 2022 is Black Health and Wellness. In that spirit, I share a reflection from 2013 as my family sought to care for our mother during her transition from independence. What we did not know then are the facts about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
From a Alzheimer’s Association 2021 report Race, Ethnicity, and Alzheimer’s In America, “More than 1 in 9 people (11.3%) age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia” and “two-thirds of Americans over age 65 with Alzheimer’s dementia (3.8 million) are women.”
An important finding for people of color during this Black History Month is that “Hispanic, Black and Native Americans are twice as likely as Whites to say they would not see a doctor if experiencing thinking or memory problems.”
These statistics and findings aligned with my family’s experience.
We long suspected something was amiss before receiving the doctor’s diagnosis. With each visit over the past few years, my sisters would tell me, “Mom is a little different than the last time you were here.” Sure, she moved a little slower and did not stand as tall—but hey, she was in her late seventies.
My brother, who was her caretaker, also told me that Mom did not want to venture outside of the home nor did she want to take part in the senior citizen activities of the local community center that she so pushed for as a volunteer. I chalked it up to a couple of things.
For one, she always operated on her own schedule and would be hard pressed to be ready when the senior citizens van came to pick her up at home. We often kidded that Mom was born late and would be so to her own funeral. The second item was her struggle with incontinence. I assumed that personal pride kept her from partaking in situations in which she might be embarrassed.
Mom seemed comfortable and very content to sit in her favorite bedroom chair and spend the day watching television. That is usually where she was when I called on the telephone and where I found her during my visits to the house. This was in contrast to her the always-on-the go and something to do behavior of the past.
The indicators became stronger when she would ask, in relatively short spans of time, the same questions about my wife and son. She would chuckle when I would point this out to her and say, “I guess I’m losing some memory.”
But when I asked her about events of over a half-century ago, she was lucid with details of people, names, locations, events, and, more importantly, feelings.
It really hit me one summer when my sister and I took Mom to visit her cousin—both were good friends throughout their lives and were approaching their eightieth birthdays.
In the space of the hour-long visit, they had the same conversation over a half-dozen times and neither was aware of it. It brought about an uneasy humor between my sister and me. We felt something more was in play than simply aging and scheduled a series of doctor appointments for the following weeks.
One of my visits back to our hometown was to celebrate Mom’s eightieth birthday. We surprised her with an outing that brought together family, friends, and members of her church community. She was deeply touched, but her comments throughout the event reinforced what most of us already knew.
That week the doctor confirmed the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia. The two dominant symptoms are a decline in memory as well as a decline in the ability to focus and pay attention. The doctor said there were no other medical issues of concern – she was happy and not depressed. Mom would often say, “I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.”
Several friends and colleagues had been down this path with their loved ones. I reached out to them for their wisdom on how to take this journey with my mother. I can now more fully appreciate the challenges of others in similar circumstances.
While studies linking Alzheimer’s dementia to racial and ethnic group are not definitive, African-Americans have a higher percentage as a group of the gene indicating increased risk than do European-Americans.
For all Americans, it is important to know there is “decreased risk of developing dementia if they had more years of early life education, had mentally challenging work in midlife, participated in leisure activities in late life, and/or had strong social networks in late life.”
The theme of Black Health and Wellness should motivate us to seek out the facts to increase our awareness and knowledge. More important, it also provides the opportunity to follow the science and act to care for those whom we love.
Opinion contributor Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret’d) is a professor of Leadership and Cultural Studies in the School of Strategic Land Power at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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