Pastor Gerald Durley, of the Providence Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta, often talks to his congregation about the health concerns of older African Americans.
When the AARP/Walgreens Wellness Tour parked its bus at his church earlier this year, Durley saw firsthand how effective this kind of outreach can be.
More than 100 people showed up for the free exams. Most, who were from the surrounding neighborhood, rarely saw a doctor. The result: Three people learned their blood pressure was above borderline—and one was taken straight from the parking lot to a hospital for treatment.
"That person would not have been aware of his problem if this hadn't been available," Durley said. "In communities of color, until they feel pain, people tend not to seek medical attention—it's too expensive, they don't have their own doctor, or they can't afford to miss work. Had that unit not been there and that man not sought medical attention—you just don't know."
AARP Georgia is trying new ways to reach more Georgians than ever before to help them live healthier. One recent example: AARP Georgia is producing a series of videos to post on YouTube that feature local experts addressing medical issues critical to older Georgians. Topics that will be discussed are diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.
In one segment, Sarah Piper, education coordinator for the Diabetes Association of Atlanta, describes simple steps diabetics can take on their own to manage their disease.
"This is a great tool—we know we're reaching people who might not otherwise hear these messages," Piper said. Almost 10 percent of Georgians 18 and older have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to a 2008 study by the Georgia Department of Human Services. "Part of AARP's mission is empowering people to access tools and resources, and these health initiatives are a part of that," Piper added. "The more we help to lessen the confusion, the better."
AARP Georgia is designing health programs and working with other groups to focus on the underserved African American community. Rates for leading causes of death among older Georgians—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes—are often almost twice as high for blacks as for whites, said Tobias Tillmon, associate state director for multicultural outreach.
For example, the diabetes-related mortality rate for all Georgians is 23 percent, but for African Americans it is 43 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The obesity rate among whites is 23 percent; for blacks it's 36 percent. And while breast cancer is more prevalent among whites, the mortality rate is higher for blacks. Poverty contributes to many of these disparities, Tillmon said. The poverty rate for all Georgians 50 and older is 18 percent. For older African Americans, it's 31 percent.
"Our overarching responsibility is two-pronged: health and wellness, and financial security," Tillmon said "Right now, we're focusing a lot on the health disparities," he said.
Toward that end, AARP Georiga is reaching out to predominantly black churches and organizations, like 100 Black Men of North Metro, as well as celebrities who help attract audiences, in order to get more people involved.
About 1,500 came to the Word of Faith Family Cathedral in Austell in February when AARP presented Grammy Award-winning gospel singer Yolanda Adams as part of the AARP/Walgreens Wellness Tour. People were encouraged to participate in free health screenings, wellness seminars and workshops.
On Sept. 28, AARP will sponsor Tom Joyner's live broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show from Stonecrest Mall in Lithonia, when he will encourage listeners to "Take a Loved One to the Doctor." Former NFL center Jamie Dukes, whose Put Up Your Dukes Foundation fights obesity and sponsors the "Billion Pound Blitz" weight-loss competition, has also teamed up with AARP, and will appear at the event.
On Oct. 9, a "Seniors Jamming for Life" health fair will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Roswell.
The outreach is paying off. AARP Georgia doubled its number of African American volunteers in the first half of this year. More churches are asking for health and wellness programs. Any church that wishes to participate can contact Tillmon at 404-870-3781 or 866-295 -7281 toll-free.
Tillmon believes more can be done. "This is just the beginning," he said.
Drew Jubera is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.