Fontana couple shares their journey after early-onset Alzheimer's diagnosis

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Saturday, October 14, 2023
SoCal couple shares journey after early-onset Alzheimer's diagnosis
Latinos are more likely to develop Alzheimer's and other dementias than their white counterparts, but they are also more likely to go undiagnosed.

FONTANA, Calif. (KABC) -- Latinos are more likely to develop Alzheimer's and other dementias than their white counterparts, but they are also more likely to go undiagnosed.

Dawn Hernandez is a mother, grandmother and wife.

"Caregiving for your kids is totally different than caring for a spouse," said Hernandez.

She met Cecil Hernandez online in March of 2007.

"We got engaged May of '07 and then got married September '07," she said.

The two share a love for adventure. They rode motorcycles, visited amusement parks, and traveled to tour NFL stadiums.

"Before our diagnosis... we were going to tour every football stadium there was," she said.

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But in 2019, life began changing for the couple.

"That was a rough year because behaviors change, which is one of the symptoms," she recalled. "I already knew he was losing things, misplacing things. Things were broken, didn't know why."

Hernandez became increasingly concerned and advocated for her husband.

"Getting people that really respond and listen - that's the biggest challenge in itself," she said. "Nobody would've ever thought at 53 he would have Alzheimer's. But nobody expects that at 85 either."

She said it was their therapist who helped them ask doctors the right questions. Then came the diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer's.

"There was a lot of crying. Cried for a week, and then jumped in two feet to get as much information as I can," said Hernandez.

Hernandez works full-time while making sure her husband has everything he needs.

There are more than 11 million Americans who provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer's or other dementias, according to a 2021 Alzheimer's Association report. Nearly two thirds of Dementia caregivers are women.

Hernandez gets some support through the California Department of Social Services, but would like to see more resources available to younger patients like her husband and more access to respite care.

"Respite care just gives a different level of energy, happiness and help to the caregiver," said Hernandez.

Support systems are critical. From family, to a flexible employer, and a support group of families navigating similar experiences.

"You share knowledge. You share tears. Where you wouldn't have thought of even 'wow, I didn't in fact think of that. I never thought it would impact me that way,' " she said.

"We hear that a lot. Just having that basic knowledge of what the disease is, is really critical in being able to care for their loved one," said Linda Loera, a program education manager at The Alzheimer's Association California Southland Chapter, which offers culturally and linguistically accessible resources like support groups, a 24/7 helpline, and raises awareness about the disease.

Loera said early action can make a big difference.

"In the last couple of years, there's been a couple of medications that have been approved for early stage Alzheimer's, if you catch it early enough, you may be able to take advantage of those medications that can really impact the progression of the disease," said Loera.

For the Hernandez family, getting a diagnosis earlier meant they could plan for the future together.

"We get to experience different things at this time, rather than a frustration of 'Why? Why? Why?' " said Hernandez.

They've had difficult conversations about end-of-life and medical care.

"Having those addressed in an early time is so helpful because it's still when he had the clarity of what he wanted," said Hernandez.

Her message to others is to remember that someone's appearance is not an indicator of what they're going through. While many things have changed, there are many constants: the home and family they've built, their love, and laughter.

"Humor has been a big part for me, then and now. Just because it breaks up the day and it keeps us laughing and smiling. I try really hard to be the positive side," she said.

"I'm just thankful for my wife to be able to deal with things. So, I don't really worry," said Hernandez.

"It's impacting so much of two people's lives. Not just mine. It's his and mine, and it's a lot. It's a lot because you have to care for two and learn to be selfless," said Hernandez.

The Alzheimer's Association has a 24/7 Helpline available every day of the year in 200 languages. If you need to contact their clinicians for support, you can call (800) 272-3900.