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Supporting Those Who Care for Elders with Dementia

by Bruce Finke, MD, Elder Health Consultant, Indian Health Service

During the month of November, we observe National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness month. There are many different causes of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common. All causes of dementia share common features of difficulty with memory, gradual progression, and difficulties in managing activities of daily living. And all present challenges to those living with dementia and those caring for them.

We don’t know exactly how many older American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) people have the slowly progressing memory problems and difficulties in activities of daily living that we know as dementia, but we do know that in every Tribal community there are people with dementia and family members and others caring for them. High rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and traumatic brain injury and the aging of the AI/AN population likely add to the burden of dementia in AI/AN communities. Health professionals working in Indian Country tell us that in AI/AN communities, as in the U.S. population as a whole, dementia is often not recognized and when it is recognized it is often more advanced.

The most effective prevention strategies for dementia are the same strategies that keep us healthy in other ways. Regular exercise and a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure, and avoidance of regular smoking and heavy alcohol use provide some protection and can help slow the progress of dementia. Current medication and treatments don’t stop or reverse the changes, but we can improve the lives of those living with dementia. One of the most effective strategies for improving the lives of people with dementia is support for those caring for them.

The IHS is working with the REACH into Indian Country Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving  initiative to bring evidence-based support to caregivers of persons with dementia across Indian Country. With funding from the non-profit Rx Foundation, the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center Memphis Caregiver Center is providing training, certification, and materials at no cost to public health nurses, community health representatives, and Tribal Senior Center caregiver support staff who function as Caregiver Coaches in nearly 50 tribal communities. The IHS has been working in partnership with the Veterans Health Administration Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving  and the Administration on Aging at the Administration for Community Living to make this training widely available.

Care for the caregiver is one of the most effective and important treatments available for persons living with dementia. With REACH into Indian Country, the IHS is working to bring that treatment to every tribal community. Click here for more information on REACH into Indian Country Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving  .

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Recognizing Alzheimer’s Disease: The First Step

Bruce Finke, MD, Elder Health Consultant, Indian Health Service
Dr. Bruce Finke is a family physician and geriatrician who has been working with IHS, tribal, and Urban Indian health programs for over 20 years to develop services for AI/AN elders. He works for the Nashville Area Indian Health Service and represents the IHS on the public-private Advisory Council on Alzheimer's Research, Care and Services.