BALTIMORE, Md. — Marlyn Taylor was nearly 60 years old before she really knew what Alzheimer’s disease was, but not because she's uneducated. She has a master’s degree. She says it’s just not something that is talked about in the Black community.
“You hear about cancer, you hear about diabetes, you know, you hear about high blood pressure, but not so much Alzheimer’s,” said Taylor. “People still connect dementia with aging, and it’s so far… they don’t even come in the same ballpark.”
Now, Taylor does outreach for the greater Maryland Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, an organization dedicated to ending Alzheimer’s and helping the families who are dealing with the impacts of the disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, Black people are more than twice as likely as white people to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Cardiovascular issues like high blood pressure or high cholesterol are considered high risk factors, which are more prevalent in the Black community.
Often when a family member is diagnosed, those who take care of them are left to fend for themselves.
“I took care of my mother, Edith B. Harris, for 18 years. I also took care of my aunt,” said Barbara Harris, a former caretaker.
Harris’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995. She says it changed her life.
“I remember mommy saying, mommy saying to me, 'oh Barbara Anne, don’t never put me in no nursing home. I want you to take care of me.' I said, 'OK mommy,' never knowing about how the disease, how bad the disease was or anything. I quit my job like that,” Harris said.
She became a full-time caretaker for her mother and in what spare time she had, took care of her aunt who also had Alzheimer’s.
“You’re 24/7. You’re 24/7. You don’t never get no break," Harris said.
That stress has a very real cost. Harris felt it one night more than ever.
“Came on downstairs, went out on the porch. Tell you the truth, I’m a smoker, yea I smoke them cigarettes. My car was right there in front of the door and I looked at my car, and something say, 'oh Barbara, go ahead, get on out there and get in the car and step on the gas and kill yourself.'”
Harris sat and contemplated suicide. She eventually decided not to get in the car.
“So, I put my cigarette out and went down to the basement and got to my computer, and I looked right over there. There was that Alzheimer’s magnet. And I called that hotline, and I got a real human being,” she recalled.
You might call it coincidence, or luck, or if you’re like Harris, an act of God. But Harris called the Alzheimer’s Association, and they helped her when she needed it the most.
“If it was not for the Alzheimer’s Association, I would be dead.”
So she kept calling and kept getting help. Then, as things got better, she started helping out, volunteering, and fundraising. The association says she now averages about $2,500 a year in donations from the community.
She also talks to everyone she knows about the disease and the organization.
“Best kept secret, but it’s not going to be a secret no more. For as long as I have breath to breathe in my body and my name is Barbara Anne Harris, I’m going to get the word out to the community,” Harris said.
That's exactly the message that Taylor and the Alzheimer’s Association want to get out to the Black community.
Taylor meets with them, now over Zoom, and educates them about the signs of Alzheimer's, the benefits of early detection, and the services offered by the association.
“It’s not the end of the road once a loved one receives that diagnosis. It is not the end of the road. There is still hope, there is still life,” said Taylor.
They want everyone to know there are resources to help you if you or a loved one receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
The Alzheimer’s Association helpline that Harris called is 1-800-272-3900. And if you or a loved one is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Both are available 24/7.