Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Alzheimer’s Disease in Belize by Christy Kessens

During the summer of 2008 I had the opportunity to volunteer with the National Council on Ageing (NCA) in Belize, Central America. My time there consisted of developing educational brochures regarding Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and participating in an educational radio program that focused on older adult issues. Throughout the following year I maintained a relationship with the NCA and discovered that the Alzheimer’s disease information I had developed was welcomed with an overwhelming response. For the first time family members were learning the cause behind the unusual behaviors and personality changes experienced by their loved ones.

Aware of the positive impact additional Alzheimer’s disease education could have on those living in Belize, I chose to complete my Master’s degree program by interning with the National Council on Ageing. Between August 31 and October 9, 2009 I had the opportunity to participate in community outreach and interview family members who provide care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Using the resources provided by the NCA, I was able to interview several family caregivers while in Belize. They consisted of husbands, wives, adult children, granddaughters, grandsons, sons-in law, and daughters-in-law. They expressed feelings of guilt, helplessness, anger, and frustration. Most were eager to share their feelings and experiences while others refused to acknowledge that their loved one had a memory problem. Regardless of their situation, it was apparent that all of them were facing the challenges of caregiving and doing the best they could given their current situation.

The stigma associated with Alzheimer’s disease is very prevalent in Belize. The shame attached to this disease keeps family members from feeling comfortable talking openly about the challenges they are experiencing. It often leaves them feeling frustrated and alone. Through public television programs and local radio stations, we were able to provide caregivers the opportunity to learn about what they are going through, offered tools needed to help them provide appropriate cares for their family member, and hopefully helped them understand that they are not alone.

The purpose of this internship was to develop a support group that would provide assistance to family caregivers who support a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. After interviewing family members, visiting care facilities, and working on public awareness programs, it became apparent that the lack of available respite care services and the stigma attached to AD would hinder the development of a support group at this time. Instead it was determined that a workshop geared towards community advocates would have a greater impact on improving the lives of Alzheimer’s disease caregivers.

The 21 guests who attended the workshop included community nurses, psychiatric nurses, nursing professors from the local college, senior advocates, as well as a social worker and police officer. Over the course of the day participants learned about the impact Alzheimer’s disease has on the brain, took part in fun learning activities, and worked in small groups. We discussed behaviors experienced by AD patients and how to best support families who are struggling with these stressful situations. The group remained focused and open to learning, shared their own personal stories, and discussed ways to use the information gained when working with caregivers.

With the participants’ desire to learn and positive feedback received after the workshop, I believe the Educational Workshop for Community Advocates was successful and will ultimately benefit family caregivers. Working with the National Council on Ageing, I hope to return to Belize in 2011 to conduct additional workshops, allowing caregivers and community advocates the opportunity to continue learning about this debilitating disease.