High rates of dementia in Latino communities show importance of early diagnosis, support


El Paso has a significantly higher rate of Alzheimer’s diagnosis’ than the national average, and Latinos in general have higher rates of risk factors for the disease. Yet limited access to prevention services and medical care may make Borderlanders more likely to delay treatment and receive inadequate health care treatment for dementia issues.

In 2015, according the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 12.4% of El Paso county residents over the age of 65 had some form of dementia. Hispanics in general are 1.5 times more likely to contract Alzheimers than non-Hispanic whites, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. This might be connected to Hispanics having higher rates of risk factors such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular risk, according to a 2016 report by the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging.

Health experts say it is important to raise awareness among Latinos that getting adequate care in a timely manner could benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by potentially slowing the progression of the disease.

For an at-risk community like El Paso, there is a greater need for Alzheimer’s care resources and educational programs, health care workers say. The West Texas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association says it struggles with getting the community to take advantage of the resources they offer to the public.

“No matter what we do in terms of terms of trying to expand our reach and make sure that everyone is utilizing our programs and services as much as possible, it’s just really difficult to get the word out and raise that awareness.” said Allison Armendariz, development manager for the Alzheimer’s Association in El Paso.

The association is coordinating with community volunteers to increase awareness and help communities develop forward-looking policies in El Paso, Midland, and Odessa to meet the needs of an aging population.

“We have a great set of volunteers who are happy to go out to any organization or group of people and present about Alzheimer’s and Dementia,” Armendariz said.

These initiatives include educational programs that cover topics ranging from legal and financial planning for those living with Alzheimer’s, to effective communication strategies for caregivers.

Alzheimer’s disease is an age-related, degenerative brain disease characterized by a steady decrease in cognitive, behavioral, and physical abilities. Typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s are memory loss, disorientation, and diminished thinking ability soon followed by trouble with verbal expression, frustration, and agitation. As the disease worsens those with it can become completely dependent on others for care. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and of the top ten leading causes of death it is the only disease with no current cure or definitive treatment program. . Early diagnosis and care implementation is one of the best ways to potentially reduce or delay the effects of the disease.

Watch for depression, increased agitation

It’s important for physicians who treat predominantly Hispanic populations to be aware of the link between depression and Alzheimer’s disease, as depression can often mask an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, according to a 2016 study by Ricardo Salazar, a geriatric psychiatrist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. Salazar’s research, published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience found that Hispanics are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease sooner than people from other ethnic groups and signs of increased agitation or depression could be signifiers of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Caretaker support and dementia-friendly outings

Andrea Kerr & Allison Armendariz

Andrea kerr (left) and Allison Armendariz work for the Alzheimer’s Association of El Paso spreading awareness about local resources for both caregivers and patients Photo credit: Summer Masoud

For most El Pasoans, memory care services are not a viable option as the costs of care can surpass thousands of dollars a month, limiting access to professional care to only the very wealthy few. This leaves many families with at home care as their only option. In Texas alone there are an estimated 1.4 million unpaid caregivers providing support to the roughly 380,000 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2017 according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

The Alzheimer’s Association of El Paso offers support group meetings for caregivers three times a month at various locations across town.

“You don’t focus on yourself, you know, your own health can deteriorate,” Armendariz said.

Often, patients and their caregivers are isolated from the outside world, as it can be difficult and disorienting to navigate public spaces. For those living with dementia and their caregivers, the Alzheimer’s Association in El Paso has partnered with the El Paso Museum of Art to conduct special dementia-friendly museum tours and art discussions as part of its Impressions program.

“It’s just a happy day for them, you know usually they’re at home, it’s hard to get them out of the house. It’s a good day for both the caretaker and the person with dementia,” said Andrea Kerr, events manager for the Azheimer’s Association in El Paso.

In addition to the Impressions program, early stage patients can attend memory cafes, which are social gatherings designed to help caregivers and those with Alzheimer’s connect and interact with others going through similar experiences. Memory cafes are therapeutic get-togethers that are held in both assisted living facilities and schools on the East and West sides of town. Memory cafes are designed to be welcoming to people with memory issues, and facilitate educational programming and activities designed to encourage memory improvements like painting or music engagement. Currently there are at least three memory cafes held each month in El Paso.

For those caregivers who lack even the time it takes to attend support groups and memory cafes, the Alzheimer’s Association has several remote accessible resources. Of these is a 24/7 helpline that provides resources and advice to over 300,000 callers per year in over 200 languages. The Alzheimer’s Association also has its own social networking community called ALZConnected, where caregivers and patients can reach out to others all over the country for advice and support.

Music therapy

El Paso is also seeing alternative forms of Alzheimer’s care which takes a person-centered approach to addressing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Danny Garcia is the head of Creative Therapies at Milagro Healthcare Services, a local non-profit organization that provides care for elder veterans. Garcia uses music reminiscence therapy to help stimulate memory recall and other benefits.

“I would facilitate music preferred from their youth or with some significance to them and recreate it live to elicit memories which could aid with goals such as speaking complete sentences, respiratory comfort, altering position from poor trunk support which is common in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and sustained eye contact,” Garcia said.

The National Institute of Health reports multiple studies have shown a clear link between music therapy and increased autobiographical recall in patients with dementia.

For more information on local resources visit the West Texas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association’s web page

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