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By: Nathaniel J. Greene, Community & Culture Reporter

As California’s population ages, the state is facing a significant increase in the number of residents living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRDs). The number of people affected is projected to double over the next 20 years, posing unique challenges, especially for those living in rural and remote areas. At an Ethnic Media Services briefing on June 13, experts discussed the obstacles these communities face and the efforts underway to address them.

Highlighting the Growing Crisis

Dr. Rita Nguyen, Assistant Health Officer for the State of California and Director of Population Health at the California Department of Public Health, opened the briefing with a stark overview of the situation.

“Alzheimer’s is now the second leading cause of death in California,” she stated. “This is projected to double by 2040.”

Nguyen emphasized the critical role of early detection and public awareness. “The take on Alzheimer’s campaign is the first ever statewide effort to shift public perception and reduce stigma,” she explained. “We aim to educate Californians about the prevalence of Alzheimer’s, recognize the disparities, and encourage early detection and preventive measures.”

Nguyen also highlighted the challenges specific to rural areas, noting, “Rural residents tend to be older than urban residents, and geographic, economic, and cultural barriers make it harder for them to access resources and healthcare services. The goal is to raise awareness and empower communities to take action.”

The Community’s Role in Caregiving

Carmen Estrada, Executive Director of the Inland Caregiver Resource Center (ICRC) in San Bernardino, shared her personal and professional insights. “My involvement with caregiving began at home, caring for my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s,” she recounted. “This experience fueled my passion for supporting other caregivers.”

Estrada described the innovative approaches ICRC uses to reach diverse and remote communities. “We rely heavily on word of mouth and ongoing outreach to build trust,” she said. “Our services include family consultation, counseling, support groups, training, and respite care. These are essential for caregivers who are often overwhelmed by the demands of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.”

She stressed the importance of understanding community needs through listening sessions and focus groups. “We need to learn how people want to receive information about Alzheimer’s and caregiving,” Estrada explained. “It’s not just about translating materials into different languages but also about culturally appropriate messaging.”

A Caregiver’s Struggle

Maria Cortez, a caregiver from Glenn County, shared her emotional journey caring for her brother with frontotemporal dementia. “Before his symptoms and diagnosis, my brother was a responsible, hardworking individual,” she said. “But after losing his job, his behavior changed dramatically. He became verbally abusive, experienced blackouts, and eventually needed constant supervision.”

Cortez highlighted the difficulties of accessing healthcare in rural areas. “Getting a referral to a neurologist meant driving two hours each way to Sacramento because there were no specialists nearby,” she recounted. “This is a significant burden, especially for older caregivers like myself.”

Despite the challenges, Cortez finds fulfillment in knowing her efforts have kept her brother alive. “He wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t intervened,” she said. “It’s crucial to recognize the signs of Alzheimer’s early and seek help.”

Hagar Dickman, Senior Attorney at Justice in Aging, presented findings from a recent study on barriers to care for individuals with Alzheimer’s in rural areas. “Low-income individuals with mid to late Alzheimer’s and dementia have no community care options and face significant challenges accessing the In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program,” she explained. “This is even more pronounced in rural areas where medical services and trained caregivers are scarce.”

Dickman emphasized the need for policy changes to support those without family caregivers. “We need to look at bolstering the IHSS program and providing intensive case management for individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” she suggested. “Expanding programs like the Community-Based Adult Services (CBAS) to be statewide and increasing the availability of assisted living services in rural areas are essential steps.”

A Collective Effort for a Growing Crisis

As Dr. Nguyen concluded, “By raising awareness, reducing stigma, and ensuring access to care, we can help Alzheimer’s patients and their families lead healthier lives. Together, we can take on Alzheimer’s.”

This call to action highlights the importance of community collaboration, policy advocacy, and continued research to support the growing number of Californians affected by Alzheimer’s disease.