Kentucky Partnership Works with Churches to Educate, Support African-Americans with Dementia

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Churches play an important part in so many communities. Therefore, I find it very interesting when medical professionals identify how they can work together with the faith community to help educate key congregations about Alzheimer’s. That’s what happening in the African-American Dementia Outreach Partnership (AADOP), a project between the University of Kentucky and six large African-American churches that has significantly increased medical care and education for dementia patients and the black community, as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal.


    This partnership is important because blacks are hit hard by Alzheimer’s due to high rates of chronic conditions like high blood pressure. AADOP project staff members Dr. Deborah Danner, Dr. Charles Smith, Dr. Peace Jessa, and JoAnna Hudson wrote in a research study: “The risk for the development of AD symptoms is greater for African Americans than Caucasians, with estimates of increased risk ranging from 15 to 100 percent. Multiple genetic, environmental and social factors likely contribute to this risk. For example, African Americans have hypertension prevalence rates that are among the world’s highest. It is known that hypertension and elevated cholesterol may double the risk of AD. Also, African Americans are 43% more likely than their white counterparts to have a biological first degree relative with AD, thus increasing their chances of developing AD because of a potential genetic predisposition. Finally, African Americans have higher rates of Type II diabetes, a factor that influences the development of vascular disease and vascular dementia. Brain injury due to vascular factors may compound AD. Dietary patterns also are implicated as contributing to disease development with dietary habits being tied not only to cultural traditions but to economic factors.”

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    Courier-Journal reporter Laura Unger also found that about 65 percent of black Medicare recipients have high blood pressure, compared with about half of white recipients. “Despite such statistics, Alzheimer's has largely been a silent disease among African Americans,” Unger wrote. “Experts said some people believe it may cast shame on older family members, and some don't know much about the disease or its symptoms.” That’s where the churches come into play. Because of the community members’ respect for and strong relationship with their ministers, the ministers were the ones that were aware of the disease’s impact on the community.

    The project has been focused on the following results, according to the project's Powerpoint:

    • Year One involved identification of partners and the establishment of effective working relationships.
    • Year Two resulted in adjustments being made to programs through input from the community.
    • Year Three focused on continued successful elements of educational outreach and maintained active clinic. An Alzheimer’s disease educational conference was held in Lexington attended by over 300 participants.
    • Year Four focused on maintaining all programs in Lexington and expanding clinical and outreach model into Louisville, the Kentucky city with the largest population of African Americans in the state (30%).

    Five lessons that came out of the partnership, according to Dr. Danner and the other researchers, were:

    1. Keep the program design flexible and seek community input.
    2. Keep language simple and avoid the use of terminology specific to the medical field before the community is educated about dementia. We used our advisory councils to review flyers, brochures and resource materials.
    3. Education can combat the negative stigma associated with dementia and remove the code of silence often practiced by African Americans and their families. Mental health problems in the African American community are often hidden because families are embarrassed. The community learned that changes in behavior and personality that accompany Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are caused by diseases of the brain and require medical attention and treatment.
    4. Education can increase the early identification of African Americans with Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
    5. When feasible, involve families, not just the primary caregiver, in the care process. In African American families, decision making often involves multiple individuals from extended family and friendship networks. Respect for older persons is strong and may be shown by attention to how decisions are made for them. Families should be told that seeking healthcare support for their older family members is not disrespectful, but allows the older person with disease to improve their personal safety and have a better quality of life.

    The partnership has also created widely used educational materials, according to Unger. These include “The Book of Alzheimer's for African-American Churches,” which is distributed in various states, and a DVD called “Granny Pearl,” a locally written play designed to teach young African Americans about the disease.

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Published On: November 23, 2009