Meharry medical student wants to increase care for African Americans with Alzheimer’s

Mekdes “Duni” Getaneh, a third-year medical student at Meharry Medical College, is a founding member of Alzheimer’s Buddies, which is a national organization that helps bring comfort and healing to people with Alzheimer’s.

Getaneh is also a board member of Alzheimer’s Buddies, an organization that pairs college students with people living in nursing homes who have been diagnosed with dementia. The students make weekly visits to the nursing homes and spend time with the patients. She is using her platform to bring awareness to the unique challenges faced by African Americans with dementia.

Studies have shown that regular contact with people whom they make a connection with can improve the health of dementia patients. Getaneh wants to recruit more African American students to take part in the program in an effort to inspire a new generation of caregivers and clinicians.

“I would like to have students of color doing more visits,” Getaneh said. “If someone who looks like you comes to visit you it makes a difference in lowering the social isolation and disengagement that often comes along with the diagnosis of AD [Alzheimer’s Disease].”

Alzheimer’s Buddies was founded at Harvard College, and there are 14 undergraduate chapters currently participating, including an undergraduate chapter at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Getaneh said her hope is to expand the effort to HBCUs such as Fisk University and Tennessee State University. She would also like for graduate students at health science centers such as Meharry to form their own chapters of Alzheimer’s Buddies.

5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer‚Äôs disease, battling profound isolation and social disengagement. The organization seeks to alleviate the often-overlooked emotional and social challenges that stem from Alzheimer‚Äôs by building friendships between college students and Alzheimer’s residents.

In addition to weekly visits, volunteers with Alzheimer’s Buddies write letters to the families of their buddies in which they highlight the positive aspects of their weekly visits, suggest activities families can do together and help reconnect family members with their loved ones.

Nursing home residents participating in the program are reported to show a decrease in depression and increased participation in social activities outside of Alzheimer’s Buddies visits.

Getaneh first became involved in the organization when she was referred to Alzheimer’s Buddies after volunteering for another program as an undergraduate student at Gordon College. Getaneh was assigned to spend time with a woman suffering from Parkinson‚Äôs, and word spread about the connection she had made with the patient. Students at Harvard College soon heard about Getaneh, and they invited her to join them in launching Alzheimer’s Buddies.

“Her life was so transformed and all we did was try on dresses or read a newspaper or watch Netflix,” Getaneh said. “I learned that I can make all of the difference.”

Getaneh continued to foster her interest in helping dementia patients through her international research. She studied approximately 25 thousand people enrolled in a project in the UK, trying to understand if depression and anxiety play a role in accelerating cognitive decline in older adults.

“My research was the first to ever look at the potential association between anxiety and cognitive decline, so that was exciting,” Getaneh said. “This was a key research topic because we were able to identify that depression and anxiety are associated with an accelerated executive function decline in older adults.”

Her abstract was selected to be presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Amsterdam. Getaneh was also recently awarded the Alliant Health Solutions/National Medical Fellowship Alzheimer’s or related Dementia care scholarship for her efforts in the field.

In addition to her research, Getaneh was able to establish the first international Alzheimer’s Buddies sister program at University of Exeter in South West England.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Alzheimer’s Buddies are now holding virtual visits, as well as sending care packages and writing letters.

Getaneh said her mission is not only to expand the Alzheimer‚Äôs Buddies program to colleges nationwide but to end the disparities gap for African Americans and people of color with Alzheimer’s.

While African Americans are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s, Getaneh said they are less likely to get the help they need or be involved in programs such as Alzheimer’s Buddies since most receive care at their homes rather than in nursing homes, which is where the program generally operates.

To begin addressing this need, Alzheimer’s Buddies is piloting a new community-based model in St. Louis with Wesley House. This organization is a deeply-rooted non-profit that has been supporting an underserved, African-American neighborhood in North St. Louis since 1903. With support from social workers and community ambassadors, local college students will be paired with seniors with dementia who are being cared for at home.

For families caring for their loved ones in the community, the Alzheimer’s Buddies program will provide a much-needed break from caregiving. For volunteers, this will be an incredible opportunity to gain new perspectives by connecting with someone who grew up in a different time and in a different context. This community-based model will be used as a template for launching similar initiatives.

“It’s such a simple concept,” Getaneh said. “We want to do it everywhere. Our goal is to have Alzheimer’s Buddies be a standard of care at every nursing home. So if I was to consider a nursing home, I would ask, ‘Do you have an Alzheimer‚Äôs Buddies program?'”

Getaneh is on a social justice mission to bring equitable treatment to people of color facing Alzheimer’s and increase their standard of care. She is asking the Meharry community to partner with her on her mission.