Senior advocates working with church leaders to fight dementia

DeKalb and Fulton county church leaders (from left) Vandy Simmons and Garland Higgins of Antioch AME Church in Stone Mountain; and Curtrina Mapp and Jean Ward from East Atlanta Church; attend an interfaith luncheon April 23 hosted by the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority to plan greater dementia understanding among parishioners.

Church leaders throughout DeKalb and Fulton counties are working with the Atlanta Regional Commission, Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, Georgia State University and Grady Health System to help people battling Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Medical researchers with strong ties to Emory University are also involved in the initiative, aimed at providing information, training and assistance to those living with dementia as well as their caregivers and relatives.

A free public workshop, titled "Understanding Dementia in the African American Community," is being held on May 19  from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Light of the World Church International in East Point.

The event, presented by research-based organization Faith Village Connections, is open to all and includes in-depth information about different forms of dementia, real life examples and discussion, free memory screenings and issues specific to the black community.

Fayron Epps, a Georgia State University assistant professor who is leading the initiative for Faith Village Connections, said the goal of working with church leaders throughout DeKalb and Fulton is to reach parishioners who otherwise might not have access to information and assistance.

Church leaders working with senior advocates to fight dementia

Fayron Epps, an assistant professor at Georgia State University, is leading church-based free public workshops on dementia awareness in Fulton and DeKalb.

She said there are very few geriatricians – doctors who specialize in treating the elderly – in metro Atlanta.

Epps, who works closely with Emory on dementia research, said there are officially 140,000 people currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia in Georgia, but that many more are living without diagnosis.

“We are under-diagnosed, especially in the African-American community,” she said April 23. “We really feel that those numbers are not accurate because there are so many people out there that aren’t diagnosed.”

Nationally, African Americans are twice as likely to have some form of dementia and are far less likely to have a diagnosis, often resulting in less time for treatment and planning.

Blacks are also far less likely to take part in associated research, largely in part due to infamous studies like the Tuskegee experiments.

Beverly Burks, Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority’s director of community engagement, said it is critical for African Americans to be part of the analysis and research into dementia, and part of the cure.

At an April 23 interfaith luncheon hosted by the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, Burks urged a dozen local church leaders to spread the word among their parishioners to seek a greater understanding of dementia and to participate in research and clinical trials.

“When people hear about clinical trials they think they have to give up blood and everything, but you don’t,” Burks said. “Clinical trials are critical so we get information about us. If you’re not at the table you’re only going to get the crumbs.”

The hospital authority, which owns Grady Health System, is providing resources to help church leaders cater specific services to seniors and those living with dementia.

Over the next six months, Faith Village Connections, which is seeking to improve church-based assistance to seniors throughout Fulton and DeKalb, will also monitor the effects that specific church services have on people living and dealing with dementia.

“It’s critical for us to make sure we can provide those connections between people who provide the services and those organizations who are there to help their members get those services,” Burks said.

Mary Newton, the ARC’s volunteer services coordinator for aging and independence services, said dementia is becoming a more critical issue in our area.

“Our communities have some of the most challenging health concerns,” Newton said. “Often we turn a blind eye and we don’t want to hear about it but we need to get involved to help people.”

Epps and others leading the push for dementia awareness said a memory screening, performed by a doctor, is one of the best and easiest methods of early detection.

Memory screenings, which involve a series of questions and tasks designed to test memory, language skills, thinking ability and other intellectual functions, are free for people over the age of 65 with Medicare.

“A lot of people do not know that,” Epps said. “And doctors get reimbursed very well for this memory screening. We really need our patients to go to their doctors and say ‘I want that memory screening.’ It takes five minutes.”

Epps encouraged people with friends or relatives showing signs of mental decline to attend free dementia workshops to understand the symptoms and the assistance available in the community.

“Many people living with dementia feel their family doesn’t understand, and often that’s because the family isn’t educated about it,” Epps said.

For more information about the free workshop on May 19 at Light of the World Church International in East Point, call 404-549-4505.

The church is at 1040 Willingham Drive.

Signs of dementia

-- Short-term memory loss

-- Difficulty finding the right words

-- Changes in mood and personality

-- Apathy

-- Difficulty completing normal tasks

-- Confusion

-- Difficulty following storylines

-- Inability to retrace steps

-- Failing sense of direction

-- Decreased or poor judgement

-- Withdrawal from work or social activities

-- Misplacing things

-- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships

-- Challenges in planning or solving problems

-- Being repetitive

-- Struggling to adapt to change