Long Goodbye: Alzheimer's in Rural America

BRANSON, Mo. -- According to statistics from the Alzheimer's Association, five-point-seven million Americans are living with the disease -- and a 2012 study conducted by British researchers, concluded that if you live in rural communities, your chances of developing Alzheimer's is doubled.

"There's never enough providers...and I think that's..that's always our struggle," said Brady Chase, a critical care nurse and educator at Cox in Branson.

If you live in rural areas, research reveals your risk doubles for Alzheimer's because of several factors. One of them is not getting a diagnosis.   

"As a community hospital, we serve those we have in the community the best we can," Chase said, "We have support groups and we have a lot of resources that we can offer. But sometimes it is that people don't even know that they need help."

"As we look back on it, we think it could have been 4 or 5 years," said Pastor Robert Johnson, senior pastor of Ozark Assembly of God Church in Kimberling City, "But you don't realize it for awhile."

Pastor Johson is a full time church leader and caregiver for his wife of almost 60 years, Sonya Johnson, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a couple of years ago. 

Pastor Johnson faces another risk factor for the disease -- lack of resources in rural communities.  

"It's just obvious as you begin to think in Springfield and all the different agencies and medical access --and that's where we had to go to the doctor and everything and we traveled there for all of our advice and everything. So you're kind of out in the country," said Johnson.

Research conducted by Dr. Tom Russ at the University of Edinburgh, shows the increased risks for those living in rural communities may also be due to exposure to unknown substances, as well as socio-economic issues. However, most researchers agree that access to necessary resources is key.   

Rob Hulstra is with the Alzheimer's Association in Springfield. He says for most rural Americans -- trading easy access to those resources for country living is worth it.  

"We live in a beautiful part of the United States -- and some people want to live so far from a community," said Hulstra, "We have some clients that have to travel 20 minutes, before they even get close to a county road."

But, when you live in the country -- travel time to the nearest health care facility can be critical.

"But when illness..medical needs know they face those same challenges. Because time can be of a consideration," Hulstra said.

Hulstra believes those living in rural communities do have solutions.

"Make use of those senior centers. Your church...if they have a health ministry program," said Hulstra.

For Pastor Johnson, his church members are making the difference.

"And the church people are family...and they reach out to us so caring and understanding and loving," said Pastor Johnson, "One of them is putting food in our refrigerator as I'm here."

He says having close relatives living nearby is also key.

"Fortunately we have family. Have a family member living in the house," Johnson said, "We have a family member living just a few miles away here in Branson."

"You've got to have help or you just...I was told recently by a close family member that I wasn't superman," said Johnson.

With the nature of Alzheimer's worsening the condition of the patient as time goes on, Pastor Johnson says he will be forced to expand his options for care. 

"As things progress and we look for further help and so forth, I hope the only options I know anything about, are not limited to what little as where we are."

And in any fatal diagnosis, options are critical to care. 

The Alzheimer's Association has a help-line for anyone needing assistance. That number is 1-800-272-3900. 


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