Native Approach to Dementia Emphasizes Human Spirit

For David Maes, of Hopi/Apache descent, a presentation he attended on aboriginal and Australian approaches to Alzheimer’s disease resonated immediately and he “knew that everything was coming together” in a new way of viewing the brain disorder.

Maes is establishing the nonprofit Taawa Energy Center (Taawa) in Denver to care for elders living with dementia through an approach that seeks and uses “the essence of the person” for healing. He points out that “Taawa” is the Hopi word for “sun.”

The need is apparent. Government experts put the number of people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s at 5 million, and it’s noted that Alzheimer’s appears to occur at about the same rate among older Native Americans/Alaska Natives.

On the plus side for Native Americans, the stigma and shame associated with caregiving to cognitively impaired elders is reported to be absent or less prevalent in the Indian community, because Alzheimer’s symptoms are often attributed to normal aging. On the negative side, Native elders in managed care experience the same limitations as others who share their dilemma.

Maes himself views those with Alzheimer’s in a unique way: He believes that “among aboriginal and Native people, those with dementia [of which Alzheimer’s is one form] are the spiritual people, beginning to leave this world to enter a world where everything is positive and good. There’s no judgment in that world.”

His approach to healing involved the initial step of bringing together traditional healers, some of whom are regarded as medicine men, and others from Denver’s Indian community for their input and support for Taawa and its methods.

A second part of preparing for Taawa’s healing method involved a conference call via Skype among the local healers, aboriginal leaders and those involved in Dementia Care Australia’s Spark of Life approach, which “complements the traditional Native healing ways practiced by spiritual/medicine people for generations,” according to the Australian program that has inspired Maes.

Generally, Maes said, the focus changes from management of disease to caring for the whole person. Among services Taawa will offer are creating family teams, or small supporting learning groups; conducting talking circles; and performing ceremony for the community, family care teams and individuals.

Most suffering among elders is caused by loneliness, helplessness and boredom, “while an elder-centered community calls for close and continuing contact with plants, animals and children for their companionship,” he said of a part of the Australian approach to dementia.

In some so-called holistic approaches, there are separate medical, social, religious and other treatment components in which “specialists think they are treating the whole person, but in fact they’re fragmenting the person.” Instead, he suggests, each specialist should have “a bit of” the other specialists, “so the M.D. explains how medicine affects his or her spirituality and accompanies the person to a chaplain. That goes to the center of each person—"the essence of the person"—that may have been lost over the years.

“The only way we can reach people with dementia is by going into their world—there’s no other way to reach them right now. They [the treatment community] are beginning to listen to us,” he said, describing Taawa as “a brand-new approach.”

One specific of the program uses the drum, universal in Native communities. Its use involves the healer, who enters the person’s world and spends time attempting to become one with them in their world while a drummer strokes the drum toward its center. At the point when the healer is one with the sufferer of dementia, there is a light tap at the drum’s midpoint. In the last step, the person with dementia talks about what he or she needs—a sense of belonging, love, or whatever they determine, and there is a loud tap on the drum after which a care plan is derived from their need.

“An institutional event becomes a more homelike event,” he said. “We start with ceremony—a good place.”

Maes received the Masters of Divinity from St. Thomas School of Theology, Denver, with a double major in Christian and Native American Theology, and a Master’s degree in Counseling from the University of San Francisco.