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Outreach to African-Americans Focuses on Medical Research

Monday, January 17, 2005

            The history of medical research and African-Americans will be the subject of a panel discussion among community leaders and researchers from the University of Rochester this week.

            The discussion Tuesday, Jan. 18, at the James Madison School of Excellence on Genesee Street has been organized by a group of researchers from the Department of Psychiatry who are conducting an Aging Well Initiative aimed at promoting healthy aging among African-Americans. The event is free, and the public is invited.

            Presenters Tuesday will include Theodore Brown, Ph.D., professor of History at the University of Rochester; Gary Chadwick, Ph.D., director of the Office for Human Subjects Protection at the University’s Medical Center; and the Rev. John Walker of Christian Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. The presentation and discussion will be from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Madison School, 275 Dr. Samuel McCree Way, just off Genesee Street. While people who plan to attend should call 275-6858 in advance to reserve a seat, walk-ins are welcome.

            The discussion and the Aging Well Initiative are being organized by Silvia Sörensen, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychiatry. Sörensen is looking at how people plan for future health needs, and how factors like their memory and other health factors affect their planning. She believes that people who fail to plan are more likely to either get too little care as they age, or even too much care, which might cause them to lose skills they’d otherwise retain.

            “There is such a need for research that addresses the needs of elderly African-Americans,” she says. “On top of that, there’s a great deal of knowledge about aging well that can benefit older African-Americans, but much of it is not well-publicized. We’re trying to get the word out.”

            Sörensen has given several talks to community groups on topics like memory, care giving, and aging well. She and her colleagues also have been meeting with ministers of African-American churches for more than a year and have formed a group called the Aging Well Initiative, to discuss how researchers’ findings might benefit African-Americans and how to get information about mental health to the community more effectively. They’ve also discussed the history of medical research among African-Americans, as well as ways that African-Americans might become more involved with current research.

            “We’re doing hands-on outreach,” says Mary Harper, who has done extensive community outreach in Rochester and is now project coordinator for one of Sörensen’s studies. “Dr. Sörensen herself is going out to groups and speaking with the community directly – people are seeing the person at the top of the Aging Well Initiative. This group is not afraid of the community.

            “For a lot of people, Strong Memorial Hospital is the hospital they cherish, and it should be taking the lead in getting out into the community. It’s great to be involved with an effort focusing on mental health,” says Harper, who grew up in rural Alabama during a time of great racial tension, an experience that heightened her commitment to community activism. “I wanted to be a bridge, to help this organization reach out into the community.”

            The Aging Well Initiative includes several other faculty members in the Department of Psychiatry. Paul Duberstein, Ph.D., is studying depression, particularly whether friends and family members of older adults know them well enough to detect depression if and when it occurs. Together with Joanne McGriff, M.D., the group is also exploring the barriers to receiving mental health care among African-Americans.  Colleague Kathryn Castle, Ph.D., is studying suicide and the roles of ethnic identity and discrimination. Other faculty members are building support networks for African-American women who are raising their grandchildren.

            The team is now putting together a yearlong class, free of charge, open to clergy who work primarily with African-Americans. The class begins in February and will cover mental health topics encountered by people involved in pastoral care.

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