Fresno resident brings Alzheimer’s information to underserved

Dean Woods returned to her home city of Fresno shortly after her mother passed away with Alzheimer’s. Seeing a need for education and support, with the help of her church, she created a dementia ministry. Working closely with the Alzheimer’s Association®, Dean and her ministry offer education and support to the westside community.

Dean on Walk day

Losing both parents
In 2007, Dean Woods was living in the Bay Area when she received a call that her father had passed away in his sleep. Her mother, Thelma Riggins, had been the one to find him. They had been married for more than 60 years.

Dean traveled to Fresno for the funeral and noticed that her mother was behaving oddly. “We knew something was wrong on the way to my father’s funeral,” said Dean. “Mom wanted to sleep the whole time. I understand that there was depression, but this was more than that.”

It is not uncommon for behavioral symptoms to worsen in a person with Alzheimer’s or other dementia after a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one. For Mrs. Riggins, the death of her husband made her symptoms more obvious.

At the time of her husband’s passing, no one in the family, including Mrs. Riggins, knew she had Alzheimer’s. They took her to a doctor in Fresno and received a formal Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Moving to the Bay Area
Dean originally hired someone to care for her mother. “When I saw how my mother was acting with her caregiver, I knew it was time for her to move in with me,” said Dean. “She was my caretaker all of my life, so it was my turn to give that back to her. She was a blessing to me the entire time.”

At first, Mrs. Riggins moved in with Dean, but when she needed more care than Dean could provide, Mrs. Riggins moved into assisted living. Dean said, “She was so happy because she had her own apartment.”

Dean had every intention of moving them both back to Fresno. Sadly, in 2011, before this could happen, Mrs. Riggins passed away.

A desire to educate others
Despite the loss of her mother, Dean decided to continue her plans to return to Fresno. Once there, she noticed that many people didn’t know how best to care for someone with dementia.

“I saw how people were interacting with their loved ones,” said Dean. “I said to myself, ‘We need some help here in Fresno.’”

There was one specific instance in a grocery story that proved how much her community needed help. A woman and her mother were behind Dean in line, and the mother appeared to have some form of dementia.

The woman apologized for her mother’s behavior and told Dean her mother was “crazy.” Dean was saddened that the woman didn’t know her mother was sick or that there was help for her.

“I had one of my Alzheimer’s Association Helpline cards on me,” said Dean. “I told her she needed to get in contact with the Alzheimer’s Association, and that they would help her. It’s a heartbreaking situation. There are many people who don’t know which way to go or how to even start getting help. There are so many people who have this disease who need help.”

Saints for the Cure a Walk to End Alzheimer's team pose with their sign
Team Saints for the Cure

Starting Saints for a Cure
In 2012 Dean and her church friend Lois, whose mother also had Alzheimer’s, came together to start a ministry at their church, Saint Rest Baptist Church. “Lois and I went to the Pastor, DJ Criner, who encouraged us to start the ministry,” said Dean. “His grandmother also had Alzheimer’s and he is very supportive of us.”

“We started out with six members,” said Dean. “Now there are 13 of us. We come together to pray and come up with ways we can help the Alzheimer’s Association and the people living with the disease.”

Getting involved with Walk
One of the ways Dean and Lois decided to support the Alzheimer’s Association was by participating in the Fresno-Clovis Walk to End Alzheimer’s. They started their team, Saints for a Cure, and began to not only raise money but also spread awareness and help to educate people on Fresno’s westside.

“We go to different churches and drop off information on Alzheimer’s,” says Dean. “We participate in health fairs and invite other vendors to come and pass out information on all types of illnesses, not just Alzheimer’s.”

Saints for a cure at their Alzheimer's fundraising breakfast
Saints for a Cure breakfast

Hosting a breakfast
Saints for a Cure raises funds for Walk to End Alzheimer’s® in two ways:

  • Sending out donation letters to friends and family
  • Hosting an annual breakfast

The Saints for a Cure have been hosting their annual breakfast long enough now that people remember it and look forward to it. Dean says, “We collect donations and give out prizes. Our breakfast raises a lot of funds.”

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic and social distancing guidelines the Saints for a Cure will not be hosting their annual breakfast.  Dean says, “We ask for prayer for the Alzheimer’s Walk Committee and all of the teams.”

Supporting diversity
When Dean first joined the Fresno-Clovis Walk, she met now Executive Director, Dr. Elizabeth Edgerly and asked her if there were any African Americans that worked for the Alzheimer’s Association. Dr. Edgerly assured her there were.

Additionally, the Alzheimer’s Association offers support groups and educational forums tailored to the African American community. We have a volunteer Black Alzheimer’s Association Advisory Council (BAAAC), whose aim is to empower the community with information and resources.

African Americans are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than Caucasians, and less likely to receive a diagnosis. It’s information like this that drives Dean and her ministry to continue the work they do in their community.

Currently, Dean is working closely with Stella De la Peña and Michelle Larson, local staff from the Fresno Alzheimer’s Association office. “We love Stella and Michelle so much,” said Dean. “We are really thankful for the Alzheimer’s Association. They have been very supportive of us. It was a blessing when Stella started working for the Association. When we first met Stella I said, ‘Thank you Jesus! You’ve finally sent someone to us who understands what we’re going through.’”

Saints for a Cure team holds hands under the oak tree during the Walk to End Alzheimer's
Saints for a Cure under the oak tree

Praying under the oak tree
In a normal year, Dean, Saints for a Cure, and 45 members of their church would meet at 9 a.m. on Walk Day to pray under the big oak tree. “We have one of the largest African American Churches on the westside,” said Dean. “We’re praying not only for ourselves but we’re praying for the whole community and everyone who has this disease.”

Because of social distancing guidelines, walkers will not be able to gather in one big group like they used to. Instead, they are asked to walk in their local neighborhoods. All of the members of Saints for a Cure will still be walking this year within their local communities, holding their Walk flags and wearing their purple shirts.

The Alzheimer’s Association can help
 “I’m walking for my mother and all the people who have gone through what I have,” said Dean. “I encourage everyone to take part. We need people to participate and support the Alzheimer’s Association.

“This disease affects people of all races. Many people think that the Alzheimer’s Association won’t be able to help them. You won’t know if you don’t try, and I want people to know there is help. The Alzheimer’s Association can help you.”

If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another dementia and have questions or need support please call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline (800.272.3900). This free service is available around the clock, 365 days a year.

You can join Dean’s team, Saints for a Cure or form your own team and join us for the Fresno-Clovis Walk on September 26. In 2020 Walk is everywhere – on every sidewalk, track and trail. Not in Fresno? Register today at alz.org/walk to find out more about being a part of Walk in your community.

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