Stress relief offered to those caring for persons with dementia

Program is first to focus on African Americans

(back row l-r) Tuesday Glover, dementia coordinator; Maria Thomas, project coordinator; Monisha Washington, community health worker; (front row l-r) Dorothea Harris, program director; Valorie Jones, caregiver social worker (Photo courtesy of VOA)

Quietly unique in who it serves, Dorothea Harris’ Volunteers of America (VOA) — Minnesota office has until recently operated at 36th and Bryant Avenue in South Minneapolis for about 18 months. Harris says with pride, “We are the only African American Caregiver and Dementia project in the state of Minnesota whose target audience is African Americans.”

The historical roots of Volunteers of America go deeper than most people realize. Social reformers Ballington and Maud Booth founded Volunteers of America in 1896. The son of General William Booth, who founded the British-based Salvation Army, Ballington and his wife disassociated themselves from the Salvation Army by calling themselves the Volunteers of America, an organization for Americans by Americans.

Annually, the Minnesota and Wisconsin Volunteers of America serve 24,500 people with 1,600 volunteers through 110 locations. The Minnesota affiliate was founded in 1896 with the Wisconsin affiliate added in 1929. Volunteers of America focuses on the whole family, providing over 60 services to children, adolescents, older adults, students, persons with disabilities and special needs, and ex-offenders, according to the website.

Among VOA’s many services is its Caregiver and Dementia project managed by Harris, the project’s director, with its focus on African Americans. Dementia is a term that covers many forms of brain deterioration, when the cells in the brain are actually dying. The African American community is at a higher risk of dementia than the mainstream White population, being two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. The higher risk is due to experiencing more health challenges such as high blood pressure, blood clots, heart attacks, and all other forms of disease that cut off blood circulation affecting the brain.

Harris’ program educates and supports the caregiver for the family member with dementia. She has often seen African Americans diagnosed by general practitioners leave the office without a clear understanding of what type of dementia the patient is enduring: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, vascular dementia, mixed dementia, or several other possibilities.

“There are certain medications for specific types,” says Harris. So much education is needed around dementia, we need to make sure our people are getting it because we’re at a high risk. Let’s get educated so they can know how to take their power back and help themselves.”

Her office has recently relocated to 3333 North 4th Street in Minneapolis after a devastating funding cut earlier this year by the United Way when Volunteers of America workers were laid off. Harris’ staff relocated to North Minneapolis to take on a greater effort in assisting the growing elder population, and this expanded role would include outreach to the Somali and Hmong communities in Ramsey County.

“I didn’t realize that what I had been doing for years, working with my elders trying to make sure they have the services they needed, can live in their homes for as long as possible…are able to connect to services as they need to, and that they have a program to support the caregiver, whoever is going to be caring for them, that this model needed to be replicated in other cultural populations.

“Of course I will keep my own African American program, but I need to hire Somali and Hmong community health workers and social workers,” says Harris. She strongly believes in the power of having health providers who resemble those they care for, and she considers it an honor to replicate the program in other communities.

Valerie Jones is a licensed social worker for the Caregiver Program under Harris’ supervision. She oversees five services: individual counseling (for the caregiver), educational training (for the caregiver), respite (for the caregiver and care receiver), service access (for the care receiver), and support groups.

“One client’s husband just had a stroke, and she was doing everything for him, including lifting him,” said Jones. “Through us connecting her with Hennepin County, she is now getting 70 hours a week of Personal Care Assistance (PCA) service for her husband.” Jones added that through this program the patient was connected with Metro Mobility, a federal government service run by the Metropolitan Council.

One of the newest programs is called AKNU (pronounced ah-nyoo) Day Companion Care. This program focuses on respite for the caregiver. Jones said, “Caregiving can be isolating. It’s a burnout and a stressful situation.” AKNU Day has a volunteer program of ambassadors, caregivers whose patients have passed or now reside in a nursing home.

Jones said, “These caregivers have the experience of knowing what a person with dementia is going through.” They become a companion to a person with dementia and attend movies and other events or watch sports together in the home. On sending same-sex ambassadors out to homes, Jones pointed out, “Men need to talk with each other; women will sit and talk with each other, but men really don’t.”

Jones said the majority of the program’s caregivers are women whose husbands have dementia and are no longer able to do the housework they used to do. The program connects them with small businesses such as hauling services, lawn work, snow removal and handyman services. On the other hand, there are men caring for wives with dementia; for them, VOA offers food delivery services and homemaker services. “My job” said Jones, “is to make caregiving as stress-free as possible.”


Visit to find out more about VOA-MN programs for memory care, including the implementation of new programs. Small businesses interested in participating are invited to call 952-945-4178.


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