An education program through OU Health is attempting to shore up access to care for the state’s dementia patients.

In 2019, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center received a five-year, $3.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Service Administration. Among the objectives of the grant was to provide community-based training and educational opportunities to improve health outcomes for the state’s dementia patients.

“We know people are living longer than ever before,” said Terence Gipson, Oklahoma Dementia Care Network program evaluator. “With an increasing elder population, particularly here in Oklahoma and in our rural communities, there’s a need to provide more community-based services for our elders, particularly in the realm of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.”

OUHSC invited representatives from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation along with Indian Health Services and a handful of other Oklahoma tribes to participate in the initial cohort for community health workers and help shape the curriculum for training efforts overseen by the Oklahoma Dementia Care Network.

Dementia is an umbrella term to refer to multiple conditions that develop when the brain’s nerve cells either die or stop working properly, which leads to memory problems.

Almost 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most prominent forms of dementia, or roughly 1 in every 10 adults older than age 65. It is the sixth leading cause of death nationwide. Medications are available to treat the symptoms but unable to cure it.

Frequent signs of the disease include someone losing the ability to retrace their steps, withdrawing from work or social activities, regularly showing poor judgment or decision-making skills, losing track of the day or season, or frequently struggling to complete a familiar task, such as driving to the grocery store or taking daily medication.

According to a study published by the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 65,000 Oklahomans are currently living with the disease, but the organization projects that number to grow by 16.9 percent by 2025.

While limited data regarding Indian Country exists, the information available suggests Indigenous elders are at higher risk. According to a study published in 2016, American Indian and Alaska Native elders have higher dementia incidence rates than their Latinx, Pacific Islander, Caucasian and Asian-American peers, with 22 cases for every 1,000 elders.

Although scheduled to begin spring 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused a delay as organizers pivoted their plans from in-person classes to online-only sessions.

The online version made it harder to do hands-on activities, but it also made it a little easier for participants to join in and work with other community health representatives from across Oklahoma.

“We are going to be in this for the foreseeable future, so we’ve had to adapt,” Gipson said. “However, our reach has been more expansive versus coming together in one place. More people have been able to attend more meetings.”

The Oklahoma Dementia Care Network’s program includes three training sessions. One focuses on basic information about dementia, including its epidemiology and breaking down any misconceptions about the disease. The second session discusses how community health representatives address dementia in their jobs.

A third session focuses specifically on training community health workers and other providers who will teach their colleagues about how to best work with dementia patients following the training.

“The beauty of what we’re working on is that we’re working on building trainings that can be passed on,” OkDCN co-investigator Kerstin Reinschmidt said. “Often the problem is that when you have a grant for a few years, when the money’s gone, the work is gone. Because we’re developing training tools and implementing training, when people see training announcements … they’re able to get the training and resources for the future for people to work with.”