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Participants at the Adult Day Center make decorations for Puerto Rican Discovery Day. (Photo provided by United Community Center)

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological condition that causes people to lose their memory, is hard for anyone to deal with.

But for elders on Milwaukee’s South Side, who may be far away from a place they used to call home and surrounded by a language they didn’t grow up speaking, the effects can be even more difficult.

That’s why caregivers at United Community Center’s Latino Geriatric Center developed a culturally competent approach to help Milwaukee’s Latinx population.

“You have to understand someone’s culture, their language, their life story,” said Wendy Betley, senior program director for Wisconsin for the Alzheimer’s Association. “If you understand who that person is, you can provide better care.”

The Latino Geriatric Center, 1028 S. 9th St., provides a space for elderly people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

It offers services like the Adult Day Center, which provides a home-like environment to elderly residents for up to five days a week. Participants engage in activities like coloring and fitness exercises while being helped by the center’s staff.

Such efforts are critical for a population that’s affected heavily by the disease. About 13% of Latinx residents in the United States are thought to have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, higher than the rate for non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Services are also scarce. Betley said because of the low number of people who specialize in Alzheimer’s or dementia care, it can be difficult to find people who provide the services in Spanish.

The language barrier is just one thing that keeps people from seeking help. Hesitation because of immigration status is another. Undocumented immigrants, for instance, might not qualify for as much financial assistance and may be fearful of institutions.

Dr. Piero Antuono, a professor of neurology, pharmacology and toxicology at the Medical College of Wisconsin who volunteers at the Latino Geriatric Center, said a lack of medical insurance creates more complications.

Antuono said the center strives to establish connections with the patients and their families..

“You need a level of trust,” Antuono said. “That trust comes from knowing you personally. If you don’t have the ‘personalismo,’ they won’t open up to you.”

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s requires doctors and other medical staff to be able to evaluate the disease’s progression.

One common test is identifying objects, for instance, so a doctor at the clinic will ask about objects patients might recognize based on their background.

“With Alzheimer’s, the tough part comes after the diagnosis,” Antuono said. “These medical changes spill over.”

Ana Castaneda, elderly programs manager at the United Community Center, said many people in the community don’t know where to go once a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

One of the most important things, Castaneda said, is to make the center feel like home.

“It’s hard to trust a loved one to someone,” Castaneda said. “We want people to know that here, they’re treated like family.”

For more information

Email Ana Castaneda at acastaneda@unitedcc.org or call 414-384-3100.

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