Oralia Tapia noticed a change in her mother five years ago--the forgetfulness, the folding of the laundry in the middle of the night, the feeling that she was not where she was supposed to be--but didn't know how to begin to care for her.
A doctor said the problem with Tapia's 85-year-old mother, Isabel Martinez, was only her age. Five other health-care agencies also offered little help to the El Sereno woman. Finally, she found a state-run facility with bilingual gerontologists and doctors where her mother was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
In an effort to save families from similar runarounds, the federal government last week launched El Portal, a three-year, $1.5-million project to increase awareness of the disease among local Latinos and coordinate services for their families. Latinos are being targeted because many families, due to language barriers or a cultural tendency to care for their own without outside help, are not getting the assistance they need, project director Laura Trejo said.
"What I have experienced in working with family care-givers is that there is great despair," she said. "When I speak to an audience, there is always someone who cries because they've been taking care of their mother or father for 10 years all by themselves and they didn't know that other people have this problem too."
Tapia and her mother received help from the USC/St. Barnabas Alzheimer's Disease Diagnostic and Treatment Center and AltaMed.
"It's very difficult to care for her and very difficult to see her this way, and I know it's very difficult for a lot of other people," Tapia said after a news conference announcing the project.
An estimated 150,000 people in Los Angeles County suffer from Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Assn. Of that number, 60,000 are Latinos.
El Portal consists of 17 public and private agencies that help Alzheimer's and dementia patients--and their families--in East Los Angeles and Bell Gardens.
Information: (800) 633-576-7825.