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My sister Bonnie and I with grandmama
My sister Bonnie and I with grandmama

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Team page of Karren Pope-Onwukwe (Chair-elect ABA Senior Lawyers Division)

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  When I was informed that my grandmother had been admitted to the hospital, I immediately went to see her. I was not prepared for her not to recognize me when I walked into her room. She was pleasant but did not know me. I kept holding her hand and asking her, “Do you know who I am?” It bears repeating—I was completely unprepared for her not to recognize me. It was extremely important to me that she remember me. How could she not know me? Perhaps my reaction was a combination of disbelief and denial. Many people dealing with a loved one whose memory begins to decline try to chalk it up to the simple aging process. The fact is, that the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other dementias is increasing age. It is important to remember that dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. But while age increases risk, it is not a direct cause of dementia. That is because scientists are not able to explain the direct cause(s) of dementia. In fact, dementia is not even recognized as a disease entity—it describes a group of symptoms.


Research shows that older Latinos are about one-and-a-half times as likely as older whites to have Alzheimer’s and other dementias, while older African Americans are about twice as likely to have the disease as older whites. And scientists do not understand the reasons for these demographic associations of Alzheimer’s.


My grandmother’s health had been declining for quite a while, but our family continued to carry on with our daily activities around the house, going to church and visiting with friends. Grandmama would sometimes repeat things that she had told you or forget things that you told her. Then she began to talk less than before not really engaging in conversations, she would sit and just look at nothing, but you could eventually get her to focus her attention on you. That day many years ago, that my grandmother went to the hospital she did not get out of bed, and she did not recognize her son and daughter-in-law. It was a crisis for her and our family. Today, the hope is that families and friends are more aware of the early signs of dementia and can be more proactive about discussing the issue and seeking help and support for their loved one.


The beginning stages of dementia can be very difficult to accept and therefore very difficult to recognize in a loved one. I use the example of my car’s starter. One day when I turned the key, the car did not start, I turned it again and the car did not start then on the third try the car started. I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong, but I continued to drive the car until the problem became so severe that I was afraid I might be away from home and not be able to start it. I drove the car to a garage; because I did not want to wait for a crisis to occur. Interestingly, people are more likely to allow a crisis to occur before discussing their suspicion or feeling that their loved one may be developing dementia.


Early diagnosis is important because there are treatments available for it. If you suspect that your loved one may be showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, don’t write it off to simple aging. Consult your family physician (many family physicians are highly skilled at diagnosing Alzheimer’s), your local Alzheimer’s Association or 24/7 help lines (800-272-3900) to locate Alzheimer’s resources.


The grim statistics are that there are some 3 million cases a year in the United States. If you notice symptoms that you suspect are related to Alzheimer’s, don’t delay—get help. Like the popular expression: “if you see something, say something” and get help for your loved one. Finally, donate any amount that you can to help me honor my grandmother. Thanks!

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Valerie Vance Adeyeye
Karren Pope-Onwukwe
Robert Lucas
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Valerie Vance Adeyeye
Karren Pope-Onwukwe
Robert Lucas

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