A doctoral student at the University of Victoria is launching a study into dementia care in the Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) First Nation community. 

Cheryl Aro is a student in UVic's social dimension of health program and specializes in Indigenous social work. The Gitsxan nation member said she's concerned about higher rates of dementia and Alzheimer's among First Nations seniors.

She says First Nations communities have an admirable way of caring for their elders, but their higher rates of dementia cases present a new challenge for caregivers.

"Recent studies are showing that Indigenous people are more at risk than their non-native counterparts, and also that they are developing dementia at earlier ages," said Aro, speaking with host Robyn Burns on All Points West, as part of the CBC series Changing Minds.

Through her study, Aro plans to explore how Indigenous communities care for their elders and how past trauma in seniors' lives could be causing dementia-related Alzheimer's.

Aro said there has been a shift in the way Indigenous communities look at dementia-related diseases in the last two decades.

Pointing to prior studies, Aro said researchers found that high rates of dementia could be related to what she described as prejudiced assimilation policies faced by elders in the past.

Aro said dementia did exist before colonization, but said residential schools, the Indian Act and so-called "Indian Hospitals" had a negative impact on a generation's development.

A personal connection

Aro said her mother, Kathy Danes, developed dementia in her late 60s. Before Danes' diagnosis, she had worked closely with dementia patients for years.

"I think she was really sad for me," said Aro, speaking of her mother. "Knowing that she was putting me in a caregiver role, that as her only daughter I would be her caregiver."

Aro said her study is in honour of her mother and the journey they've been on together since the diagnosis. Danes attended a residential school in Port Alberni, B.C.  Aro said she is basing her study around the long-lasting effects of what she called racist colonial policies at the schools.

After years of caring for her mother, Aro found the support they needed at Cumberland Lodge, an assisted living facility in Cumberland, B.C., a short drive from their Nanaimo, B.C. home.

"I felt a little bit heartbroken about it," said Aro. "I felt like I was re-institutionalizing my mom, at the end of her life ... I cried all week, thinking I had done my mom a disservice as her caregiver."

But to her surprise,  Aro said her mother was happy at Cumberland Lodge and become a "social butterfly."

Aro said there are many more First Nations families caring for elders than statistics suggest and there is a growing need for more support in terms of respite care.

With files from All Points West