The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, working with partners across the state, has been awarded a $3.75 million federal grant to enhance the care and support of a growing group of Oklahomans – those who suffer from memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 65,000 Oklahomans currently live with Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to grow. An especially cruel disease with heartbreaking cognitive decline and no cure, Alzheimer’s requires a circle of support so that people with the disease can live as well as possible for as long as possible.
The program established by the grant will focus on two overarching objectives: educating the current and future workforce to better care for people with dementia, and creating dementia-friendly health systems. Unfortunately, Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in several quality of life and health rankings for older adults. Lee Jennings, M.D., a geriatrician with the OU College of Medicine who is leading the grant, said she hopes the upcoming efforts will improve those numbers.
“Dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, is much more prevalent in older adults,” she said. “As the number of older Oklahomans increases, this disease will become more common. We don’t want people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers to become isolated. We want communities and healthcare systems that are friendly to people with cognitive impairment and memory loss. We want people to thrive as long as they can, as best they can, with the support that they need.”
The structure of the program is uniquely opposite of most academic grants. Rather than working solely with physicians and students on campus, the program will engage primary care clinics around the state, direct-care providers such as nursing home staff, organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, and family members and caregivers of people with dementia.
Most of the medical care for patients with dementia is provided by primary care clinics, but that only accounts for a short medical visit. That means families and other caregivers are taking care of loved ones the majority of the time. And because Oklahoma is largely a rural state with not enough primary care physicians, the need is great to increase support and knowledge for everyone helping a person with dementia.
Hudson OU College of Public Health department chair Thomas Teasdale, who holds a doctorate in public health, is co-leading the program with Jennings. Through an existing partnership with the Oklahoma State Department of Health, Teasdale already works with the state’s 300-plus nursing homes, where 70 percent of residents live with some type of dementia. The grant also will allow him to enhance dementia care education for new audiences, including community health workers, in partnership with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department. Another partner agency, the Oklahoma Foundation for Medical Quality, will provide quality improvement consulting as the program evolves.
Jennings and her team also will work with OKPRN, the Oklahoma Practice-Based Research/Resource Network, a large group of physicians who conduct ongoing research to improve the care they provide. In addition, the grant will allow OU dementia specialists to provide tele-consultations for rural physicians who might need help treating patients with complications.
“We want to offer rural providers the expertise in our university setting. They may need new strategies for managing a patient’s neuropsychiatric symptoms or treating difficult diagnoses related to dementia,” Jennings said.
The grant’s second objective -- to create dementia-friendly health systems – covers everything from the physical layout of a clinic to the community resources that are available for people and their caregivers. Clinics can improve their environments by ensuring signs are understandable, exam tables are easy to use for older adults, and sensory aids like hearing amplifiers and large-print materials are available.
A dementia-friendly practice also means both clinical providers and staff can connect patients and families with community resources where they live. Support groups, for both caregivers and the person living with dementia, are often crucial in helping people cope. They also can help reduce the stigma that is still associated with the disease.
“We want to let people know that there are resources, and we don’t want caregivers to feel stigmatized,” Jennings said. “It can be isolating if caregivers don’t feel like they can go out into the community with their loved one. We want to help people live with dignity and be as independent as possible while they age with this disease.”
The effort also extends to Oklahoma’s Native American tribes. The Choctaw Nation in particular is working not only within its own geriatric clinics, but beyond the healthcare setting to transportation access for people with dementia.
“This grant and program would not be possible without our many community partners,” Jennings said. “We are putting these federal dollars to use in our communities throughout Oklahoma to improve the health and quality of life of people with memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.”