Black nurse scientist brings dementia awareness, education and support to the African American community

Black History Month is not only a time for our country to recognize the impact African Americans have made in the past. It’s also when we celebrate their current achievements as well. 

Dr. Fayron Epps, Assistant Professor of Nursing at Emory University

That’s why we’re proud to cast a spotlight on Dr. Fayron Epps, a nurse who has found her mission to educate African Americans on dementia and empower the church families who support them.  

When Dr. Epps first learned that blacks were twice as likely as whites to get Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, she knew she had to find a way to help. Recognizing the major role churches played in the African American community, she decided to focus her efforts on partnering with them to promote dementia awareness. The church had historically been the cornerstone and a haven for African Americans. Dr. Epps also knew that many relied on their faith and church families and were less likely to reach out to health professionals in times of need. 

This made her question how places of worship were serving and not serving their congregations. In September 2017, “Faith Village Connections” was born – a nurse-led collaborative that works with community agencies and African American faith congregations to develop dementia-friendly faith villages to support families caring for persons living with dementia. 

Through a research grant from the Alzheimer’s Association in 2018, Dr. Epps now works with congregation leaders, who she refers to as “powerhouses,” to design dementia-friendly worship services. By doing things like shortening the length of services and adding a higher proportion of music, a person living with dementia is better able to enjoy his or her time of worship. 

Her work doesn’t stop there. Through Faith Village Connections, she’s developed a Dementia-Friendly Faith Village Community Program. The program equips predominantly African American churches with the tools needed to help congregants affected by dementia such as how to develop a respite program and provide emotional and social support. Caregivers also receive education on how to help loved ones get diagnosed earlier and receive medication to improve their quality of life. Memory screenings, workshops for church leaders and community forums promoting awareness and ways to reduce risks linked to dementia are also offered.

“Many in the African American community, including myself, were raised and taught that Alzheimer’s disease is a disease Caucasians primarily get,” says Epps. She recalls a bishop sharing with her that he’d wondered what was happening to his uncle long before he realized he had dementia. She remembers another church leader whose mother had Alzheimer’s at that time telling her, “I’m going to visit my mom and I’m going to look at her with new eyes.”

Yet another pastor excitedly shared with Epps that he had a new church member, who previously couldn’t attend services because her mother had dementia. But now, because of the caregiver education provided by Dr. Epps and her team, she would be able to.  

Referred to as “a movement” by the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation, Inc., what makes Dr. Epps’ story revolutionary is the message of empowerment for faith communities along with the much needed education and support her program provides to the African American community to reduce health disparities and improve health outcomes.

“I’m just an ordinary person who likes to help others,” says Dr. Epps, an Assistant Professor of Nursing at Emory University and mother of three. She attributes her doctorate to a friend who dared her to get a PhD with her. (Epps got into the program, but her friend didn’t.) This nurse of 20 years has even done post-doctoral training, successfully obtained many grants and sits on several boards including the Alzheimer’s Association Georgia Chapter.

“I never imagined I’d be an African American female scientist today,” says  Dr. Epps. “I didn’t even know that was a career path when I went to school. STEM for girls of color was not heavily encouraged as it is today.” Growing up in New Orleans, her main goal was to be a nurse like her aunt and grandmother. After entering the field, she was told she’d be a good leader. So, she got a master’s degree in nursing with a focus on Health Care Systems Management where she discovered that leading was something she wanted to do. 

Today at 42, Dr. Epps is a nurse who is educating African Americans and church leaders on dementia. “I can finally say, I’ve found my purpose. This is my calling and my ministry. God is working through me to help my people. I am on assignment!”

To learn more about the Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter visit alz.org/georgia

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