By Pablo Jaime Sainz
Celia Medina has changed roles: Now it’s her turn to take care of her father, just like he took care of her when she was a little girl.
“He depends 100 percent on me,” said the 52 year-old Chula Vista resident. “Fortunately I’m single and I can devote all of my time to take care of my dad.”
Celia’s father, don Fidel Medina, has Alzheimer’s disease.
And even though he’s over 80, due to the condition’s symptoms, “it’s as if he were a child,” Celia said.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia among older people. Dementia is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to do his or her everyday activities.
Although many people relate Alzheimer’s with loss of me-mory, the condition’s symptoms can vary.
“It’s a condition where the brain cells start dying progressively. Since cells are dying, little by little, body functions are being lost,” said Roberto Velas-ques, program director at the Alzheimer’s Association, in San Diego, a non-profit organization that offers support services to Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
At the late stages, patients need permanent care, just like don Fidel’s case.
Today it is estimated that about 4 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s. Of those, about 200,000 are Latinos. In the next 50 years about 1.3 million Latinos will have the condition, roughly six times today’s number.
“The number of Latino patients is high and it will continue increasing,” Velasques said.
The Alzheimer’s Association, founded in 1980, began offering Spanish-language services in 1997.
“There’s still a lot of room for improvement, and that’s what we are trying to do,” he said.
“In general, Latino families don’t use the support services they have available,” Velasques said. “That’s due to several factors, cultural factors for the most part. It’s difficult to accept this disease. Also, due to lack of knowledge about the symptoms, such as memory loss, many Latino families see this symptom as something very natural in old age, although it is not.”
One of the people who have taken advantage of the Spanish-language services offered by the Alzheimer’s Association in San Diego is Celia, who has taken care of her father, day and night, for the past six years, when the symptoms changed him forever.
“Before being diagnosed with the disease nine years ago, don Fidel was a different man,” Celia said.
“He was a hard-working man, fun, always very independent,” she said.
Now don Fidel needs his daughter for everything, from eating to driving to doctor’s appointments.
“Us caregivers don’t have an hour for rest. We’re taking care of our loved ones 24 hours a day,” said Celia, who is the only member of her family living in San Diego. “It’s a very tiring task, but thank God he gives us strength.”
Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects all of the patient’s family members, but especially those individuals who serve as caregivers.
“Sometimes I feel impotent for not being able to find a cure for my dad. I am his eyes to see, his mouth to talk. I sometimes have to think for him. I suffer this condition with him,” she said.
In addition, the family has to live through the social isolation that comes with Alzheimer’s.
“Friends turn away from us, they don’t visit anymore. The more advanced the disease is, the more alone we are,” Celia said.
That’s why Celia joined the Spanish-language support group for Alzheimer’s patient’s family members in San Ysidro, offered by the Alzheimer’s Association in San Diego and Casa Familiar, a social services agency.
There, family members share tips, advice, and serve as support network for each other.
Velasques urged the Latino community to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, and invited Alzheimer’s patients’ family members to take advantage of the services offered by the Alzheimer’s Association in San Diego.
“We’re here to tell you that you’re not alone with this disease. Call us to receive orientation. Don’t take symptoms such as memory loss as something normal, because it is not,” he said.
Alzheimer’s Association, San Diego Chapter
4950 Murphy Canyon Rd., #250, San Diego, CA, 92123
Hotline: 1 (800) 660-1993.
Pablo Jaime Sainz is an intern with the UCSD San Diego EXPORT Center and a graduate of San Diego State University. The San Diego EXPORT Center is a partnership of organizations focusing on community minority health and health disparities research.