A difficult journey motivates this Merced volunteer

Hortencia Silva of Merced is an Alzheimer’s advocate and a community educator. Just over a month ago, she lost her father, Hernan, to Alzheimer’s. She has helped the Alzheimer’s Association build relationships in the community as she educates people on Alzheimer’s disease.

Hortencia’s family after they moved to the

Immigrant from Mexico living the American dream
Hernan F. Cortez moved to California’s central valley in the early 1950s. With their six children, he and his wife Carmen started a new life in Los Banos. Hernan started out as a day laborer. In the early 1960’s he got his license and became the second farm labor contractor in Los Banos.

By the late 1960s he had purchased a small grocery store as well as a ranch. Hernan later started the first taxi business in Los Banos. “He helped build Mission de Oro on Interstate 5,” shared Hortenica, his oldest daughter.

Difficulty getting a diagnosis
In 2008, Hernan began to have trouble remembering things. His family started noticing that he wasn’t acting like himself and was becoming more and more aggressive. They took him to his doctor to find out what was wrong.

Initially, the doctor did not provide an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. “The doctor didn’t mention Alzheimer’s or dementia to me,” explained Hortencia. “My father’s doctor told me he was just old.” Instead, Hernan received a diagnosis and treatment for multiple mental health disorders.

Hernan

“I don’t know if it was because of our own ignorance about dementia, but we didn’t push any of his doctors further,” shares Hortencia. “In our culture we are taught never to question anyone who is highly educated, like a doctor. It would be disrespectful.”

Research has shown that that missed diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and other dementias are more common among Hispanics than among whites.

It would be another nine years before Hernan received a diagnosis of vascular dementia.

A sad twist of fate
As the disease progressed, Hortencia’s mother was unable to care for him without help. Juan, Hernan’s oldest son, felt obligated to step into the role of caregiver.

Hernan only lived with Juan for a short time before suffering from a stroke. He was then placed in a nursing home. Sadly, during this time, Juan suffered an aneurysm and died. He was only 58 years old.

Seeking information
As the next sibling in line, Hortencia took over care for her father. Hortencia didn’t believe her father was “just old,” as the first doctor had told her, but she was unsure of what to do. She confided in her friend Stella de la Peña, who happened to work for the Alzheimer’s Association.

In listening to Hortencia’s stories about her father, Stella recognize the signs of Alzheimer’s. She directed her to contact the Helpline at 800.272.3900. Hortencia said, “I didn’t know it at the time, but the phone number was the best gift I could have received.”

Hortencia quickly became friends with other staff members including Cheryl Schrock, the Walk manager for the Merced Walk to End Alzheimer’s. “Cheryl would call to check in on me,” shared Hortencia. “She kept reminding me the helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Many families believe that Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging, but it is not. Even members of Hortencia’s family questioned whether or not Hernan had dementia. They insisted he just had a mental health disorder.

“He was a very smart man up until the disease took him,” shared Hortencia. “It hurt to watch.”

Looking back on this experience, Hortencia has this suggestion for current caregivers: “If you start seeing changes in your loved one you need to start a journal. Write down how your loved one is acting then bring this information to the doctor.”

A difficult evacuation
One fateful day in 2017 Hortencia and her family were forced to flee from their home during a fire in Mariposa. At this time, Hernan had not been diagnosed with any form of dementia.

With limited education about Alzheimer’s and caregiving, Hortencia did not know how traumatic the evacuation would be for her father. “On our way to the shelter my father started acting out. He started to hit me with anything he could find in the car,” shared Hortencia.

Injured, Hortencia drove to the police station to get help. “At the time, I was ashamed to admit that my father beat me up,” shared Hortencia. “If I had known it was Alzheimer’s I would have done things differently.”

It was at this time, in 2017, that Hernan was diagnosed with vascular dementia.

As Hortencia has learned more about Alzheimer’s disease, she recognizes how scary the situation was for her father. “I understand now what my father must have been going through,” Hortencia shared. “I’m not embarrassed to share this story anymore.”

Hortencia with Congressman Costa in Washington D.C.

Volunteering to help others
Hortencia doesn’t want other people to go through the same hardships her family faced. As a retired health educator who worked for the county, she’s using her time and experience to partner with the Alzheimer’s Association and educate her community.

“Hispanics often have a lack of insurance, a lack of knowledge and a lack of transportation,” says Hortencia. “We end up living with our children and we’re left at home by ourselves when the children go to work. We have no one to talk to and no stimulation.”

Hortencia wants to make sure that her community is more educated about Alzheimer’s and caregiving. She represents the Alzheimer’s Association at as many community events as she can.

“They needed someone to represent Merced,” says Hortencia. “Whenever they call, I make myself available. The Alzheimer’s Association came through for me, and I want to return the favor.”

Hortencia currently volunteers her time as an advocate for Merced County and is working on becoming a community educator. “I finally found an organization that I can support,” shares Hortencia. “I can be supportive for those people who don’t understand Alzheimer’s.”

The journey isn’t over
Hortencia’s family journey with dementia is not over. Her mother, Carmen, was recently diagnosed with the disease. This time, her sisters will be the primary caregivers for their mother but Hortencia knows how she will do things differently.

“We can sit and talk, play games and dance,” shares Hortencia. “I want her hold on to some independence for as long as possible. We can cook traditional foods together and she can help me the whole time. I just want to spend as much time with her as I can.”

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