Alzheimer’s and its impact on the African-American community

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts slowly and gradually worsens over time. It is the cause of 60-70% of cases of dementia. In most cases, remembering recent events is one of the earliest symptoms. A disease in the brain, the onset usually occurs in patients over the age of 65 but can occur earlier. Alzheimer’s is one of the most financially costly diseases.

According to a recent study by Emory University, African-Americans are 64 percent more likely to develop the disease in comparison to Caucasians. James M. Ellison, MD, MPH of the Swank Memory Care Center, contributes medical conditions, environmental factors, and hereditary factors causing the most significant spike in the disease among African Americans. Alzheimer’s is now the fourth leading cause of death among older African-Americans. These issues add tremendous stress to patients of the African-American community and also their caregivers.

Ge Vonna, the founder and director of Olivia’s Prayer, an organization named in honor of her mother who has Alzheimer’s Disease, says, “A lot of African-Americans are in denial about the disease and want to brush it under the rug.” She uses her platform to raise awareness in the African-American community and to understand the process of caregiving better. Ge Vonna says, “It is the mission of Olivia’s Prayer is to help those who help those who can’t help themselves to find respite, resources, exchange ideas and spiritual comfort.”

In 2009, after the death of her father, Ge Vonna left behind a successful journalism career in Texas and moved back to Chicago to care for her mother, who she affectionately calls Momsey. Being a caregiver is a full-time job, and even though Ge Vonna is now working on entrepreneur ventures and has more freedom to conduct business, being a caregiver puts restraints on her time. She admits the biggest adjustment to being a caregiver is a lack of sleep and a drastic change in lifestyle.

Earl Gibson III is a successful photographer who has been fortunate enough to capture the images of political leaders, moguls, and entertainers all over the world. He has a vivid picture of the challenges of dealing with someone with the disease. Residing in sunny California, he worries about the hazy memory of his father, Earl Gibson Jr., while watching the role his mother, Anita, is playing as his father’s caregiver. Gibson says, “I am the son of a parent who has Alzheimer’s. It is a very unkind disease that robs you of our precious gift–your memories.” Even with a steady business and flights all over the globe, Earl comes home every month and is contemplating a possible return to Chicago full time to help out.

Gibson revealed how a trip with his dad over the summer proved to be a real eye-opener. “While driving to our family reunion, I was reminded how much my father loves me,” Gibson revealed. “While driving to Mississippi, he was telling me about his son (me), although he didn’t realize I was his son. He went on to tell me how proud he was of me and how much I work.” Gibson shared, “It took everything in me not to break down and cry, but I realized how significant our time with our loved ones are.”

Ge Vonna and Gibson agreed to see their loved one battle the disease is challenging, but they cherish the quality time they’re able to spend with their parents during this stage in life. “Our time with our loved ones is but for a fleeting moment,” Gibson added.

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