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By Dr. Sheria Robinson-Lane who devotes her career to helping African American caregivers
Dr. Sheria Robinson-Lane is a respected gerontologist, a national lecturer and health educator, and a premier researcher, dedicated to improving the lives of African American seniors.
Dr. Robinson-Lane focuses on how diverse elders age with chronic disease, a line of study she has been pursuing at the University of Michigan since 2011. Her goals are to use her findings to help reduce health disparities for minority older adults, and to make a difference for the family members who care for those individuals by looking into the factors that contribute to their ability to provide care.
Some of the factors she considers in African American caregivers are their resources and the type of support that they have available, as well as their own overall health, personality, and coping characteristics. Her findings will hopefully help guide the development of sustainable, community-based support programs for minority caregivers. Dr. Robinson-Lane’s research is especially vital; while white Americans make up the majority of the more than five million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, African Americans have double the risk, and studies show that they are less likely to have a diagnosis.
Although her research is still in the beginning stages, her relationship to Alzheimer’s disease started when her grandmother started exhibiting symptoms of dementia.
“I think, of course, your personal experiences always influence the work that you do,” says Dr. Robinson-Lane. “What got me engaged in research was definitely my maternal grandmother. She’s almost 100 now, and even though she has dementia, other elders develop those same symptoms and require the same kinds of care 20 years earlier. She even had cancer in her 70s, and we were advised not to pursue treatment because of her age, but she went on to live another 30 years.” Her grandmother helped raise her during her teenage years.
Dr. Robinson-Lane says that many of the participants that she works with are diagnosed late in their stages of the disease.
“The adults I spend time with are diagnosed pretty late, if at all, and so right now my work looks at whether or not people are being diagnosed and whether these people are staying at home longer. Many people don’t get a diagnosis, which is something I’ve seen even in my own personal family.”
While Alzheimer’s disease is the only top ten causes of death in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed, early and accurate diagnosis is important. Dr. Robinson-Lane emphasizes that a diagnosis enables individuals to prepare legal, financial, and end-of-life plans while they are still cognitively able to make decisions and share their wishes. This could include whether or not they are placed in a care facility, which is an important decision for everyone involved, according to Dr. Robinson-Lane.
“Even prior to my research, I’ve been doing community-based education both for elders and caregivers as well as clinicians so that they can provide the most appropriate care for older adults and understand the process a little better,” she said. “A lot of the work I’ve done before has actually been more directly with health care providers, so even though my research is community-based, a lot of my prior work really focused on helping clinicians provide better care.”
Dr. Robinson-Lane hopes that caregivers connect with resources like those offered by the Alzheimer’s Association, Area Agencies on Aging, AARP, and others. Dr. Robinson-Lane stresses the importance of caregiver health and wellbeing, and acknowledges the struggles that accompany the job.
“Take care of yourselves. Too often, caregivers are so incredibly focused on their loved one because they’ve spent a lot of time with them. But it’s an incredibly stressful period, and during that space, you kind of lose yourself. So, one of the things I think is so incredibly important is that you leave some time for yourself and keep up with your own doctor’s appointments, making sure you’re keeping on top of your own health, and reach out to supports you already have.”
Dr. Robinson-Lane says the future of Alzheimer’s research is hopeful, and that every day is a day closer to a cure.
“The future looks promising! More than a billion dollars have been poured into Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia research. Research is looking at all aspects, including care, cure, comfort, and quality of life. I’m excited to be engaged in this work with so much momentum.”
To learn more about Dr. Robinson-Lane, follow her on Twitter at @SheriaRobinson. To locate caregiver resources in your community, visit www.CommunityResourceFinder.org.