Move to boost Hispanics' awareness of Alzheimer's
Monday, March 7, 2011; 5:00 PM
DAVIE, Fla. -- William Gonzalez's world collapsed when his wife of more than 50 years was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four years ago. The 78-year-old Cuban immigrant knew little about the scourge that was gradually robbing his wife of a lifetime of memories.
Today, the Air Force veteran struggles to run his home in Davie, Fla., while serving as sole caretaker for his 74-year-old wife Ida.
In increasing numbers, Hispanics are facing the wrenching prospect of helping a loved one battle the most common form of dementia. The population of elderly Hispanics is projected to grow the fastest of all U.S. racial and ethnic groups in coming years, from just under 3 million in 2008 to 17.5 million in 2050, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.
That has Alzheimer's groups pushing to raise awareness among Hispanics who are living longer, into the decades when the risk of Alzheimer's rises dramatically.
The Alzheimer's Association "Know the 10 Signs" workshop in Spanish is being offered at the more than 70 chapters nationwide.
A support group started by The Latino Alzheimer's & Memory Disorders now meets twice monthly in different Chicago locations. In Milwaukee, the Latino Geriatric Center provides screenings for memory loss and support groups.
Complications from Alzheimer's is the sixth-leading cause of death for non-Hispanics and 12th-leading cause of death among Hispanics, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Yet the nation's largest, private nonprofit funder of Alzheimer's research - the Alzheimer's Association - warns that the number of older Hispanics with Alzheimer's and related dementias could rise more than sixfold from fewer than 200,000 cases today to as many as 1.3 million by 2050, based on rates of population growth.
"We want to make sure we increase concern and awareness as much as we can and extend our services and support," said Janis Robinson, an association official.
Experts say some Hispanics are reluctant to make medical appointments, which can create long delays from when symptoms are first noticed until a neurologist is seen. When they do decide to see a doctor, it can be a challenge finding one fluent in Spanish.
Add to that the stigma often attached to mental illness - the Spanish word for dementia is "demencia," which roughly translates as "crazy" - and Hispanics face daunting barriers to frank discussion about such diseases.
"I look at it as what cancer was 10 or 15 years ago. People never talked about it or the c-word," said Serge Morales, a 72-year-old retiree of Mexican descent in Agoura Hills, Calif.
He and his wife, Susan, knew little about dementia until she was diagnosed at 58 with early onset Alzheimer's. Susan Morales, who has a nursing degree, has made Los Angeles-area speaking appearances to raise awareness about a disease normally associated with the elderly.
"She's very young-looking and we just want to make sure that people understand that it can happen to you at a young age," Sergio Morales said.
Dr. Elizabeth Crocco, an Alzheimer's expert at the University of Miami School of Medicine, recalls one patient who was living in Puerto Rico and whose siblings hid her disease from her grown children in Miami. When her son discovered his mother had problems driving and paying the bills, he moved her to Florida for treatment.
"They got angry at him for taking her away," Crocco says of the older siblings. "It was the professional younger son against the older generation."
Arturo Flores, a 38-year-old technician, is the youngest of four children and lives with his parents in Culver City, Calif. His Mexican father, Ricardo, has Alzheimer's. Flores, who is single, said caring for his father has affected his life more than he expected but he feels a duty to the father who raised him.
"I can't really talk to him about certain things in my life I wish I could," said Flores, who has cried many times since his father's diagnosis. "He can't get his ideas out anymore. I see him more as my son now."
In South Florida, Gonzalez's wife was diagnosed four years ago after someone noticed she was speaking English to a Spanish-speaking friend. Now he's struggling with the toll of coping with her disease, vexed when she barely noticed the Christmas ornaments he put up at their home for the holidays.
"That's kind of frustrating, but it's not her. It's the disease," said Gonzalez, who sought relief at weekly support meetings with others who care for Alzheimer's patients.
Fighting back tears, he recalled how he asked his three grown children for their support shouldering the load his wife's disease has placed on him: "You better keep me alive, or try to. Because if I'm OK and here, I can take care of her," he said.
(This version corrects the spelling of Ida Gonzalez's first name.)