The summer of 2009 I was able to experience a rare and exceptional learning experience by traveling to Ghana on a Medical Mission to help improve the lives of memory impaired elders and their caregivers. I will be forever grateful to faculty and students at SUNY School of Social Welfare and the International Studies Department for the encouragement and support that helped make this project a reality.
In 2007, Rev. Alice Kyei-Anti, a Presbyterian minister from Ghana, was visiting the Albany area as a guest of the Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC). Westminster has a long established partnership with the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, and Rev. Alice had come to Albany to gather information about programs and services for the aged in Ghana. She was invited to tour the Marjorie Doyle Rockwell center in Cohoes, and meet with staff from Eddy Alzheimer’s Services. I was invited to meet with Rev. Alice to discuss our memory clinic. It was from this meeting that the idea of a medical mission first took shape. Westminster was planning a trip to Ghana in July of 2009 and invited professional staff from Eddy Alzheimer’s Services to join the travel team to provide consultation, information and training in the care of memory impaired elders.
As clinical manager and social worker for Eddy Alzheimer’s Services and also a doctoral student, I eagerly accepted the invitation. Dr. Michael Wolff, medical director of Eddy Village Green and Eddy Alzheimer’s Services also offered his expertise. Other team members included: Lois Wilson – WPC Deacon, and member of the NYS Family Caregiver Council and NYS Health Dept. Long term Care council; Kwadwo Sarfoh, PhD – professor of Africana Studies SUNY; Rev. Paul Randall – minister, Presbyterian Church (USA), retired and his wife Margaret Randall – Westminster Presbyterian Church, trustee; Helen Lewis – Dietician (retired) NYS Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities; Chester Burch – WPC Trustee; and Rev. Kathryn Shaffer – Minister Presbyterian Church (USA) and her daughter Laura Schaffer, age 9 – representative of the Children’s Art Project
After a long year of planning, researching, seeking funds and more than a few prayers, we arrived in Ghana on July 10, 2009 to participate in a 3 day dementia workshop at the Abokobi Presbyterian Women’s Center, near Accra. We were warmly welcomed by the Rev. Alice Kyei-Anti, a pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG) and Leader of the Committee for the Aged. This committee partnered with the Westminster Team to organize and plan the conference.
Presentations by the US team included Dementia Care Basics, Normal Aging and Diseases of Old Age, a presentation on the Eddy’s faith based Alzheimer’s Care Teams, Nutrition and Aging, Spirituality and Dementia, as well as presentations from PCG groups on successful programs for the elderly. The PCG sent representatives from 11 regions to the conference to learn the basics of dementia and form a plan for the creation of care teams in their congregations to care for the aged. We were most impressed with the excellent programs already developed by the PCG to serve the elderly. The conference offered an opportunity for sharing across cultures and by all accounts was a huge success. We were most touched by the hospitality and dedication of the participants who were committed to moving forward to develop programs and services to meet the needs of the aging population of Ghana.
Although the conference was the focus of our trip, while in Accra, we hosted a party at the Osu Children’s Home, an orphanage that is home to 250 children including infants to age 18 – an incredible experience! It was quite an adventure getting to the home, since President Obama was speaking only a few blocks away. After 3 hours of driving, and finding may roads blocked to traffic, we had to abandon our bus, walk several blocks and catch a tro-tro (a local transport van of dubious safety) to get us the rest of the way. We sang and played games with the children, distributed some small toys and provided lunch. The children were very excited and very much in need of attention, all competing to have their picture taken or to be held. This was, without a doubt, a highlight of the trip.
We also enjoyed visiting and participating in four different church services (quite different form the American style of worship!) where we were welcomed with gifts and refreshments, as is the Ghanaian tradition. Dr. Sarfoh proved an indispensable resource as he patiently escorted us through national parks, craft markets, museums and arranged tours of hospitals. We will be ever thankful for his patient coaching in the Twi language- while feeling fortunate that most people in Ghana speak excellent English. At the Ashanti Palace Museum, Dr. Wolff was “enstooled” as an Ashanti chief!!! Everywhere we were greeted with “Akwaaba” (Welcome), warm smiles and generous hospitality.
At Kakum National Park, we had the unforgettable experience of crossing the rainforest canopy on a little narrow plank supported by ropes – the view was remarkable if one had the courage to look down (I didn’t!!) The canopy walk consists of seven rope bridges, about 120 feet above the ground, totally about 1000 feet in length. We were told that one can sometimes see monkeys in the canopy. Unfortunately, no monkeys were spotted but we did see one very large tarantula!
We were moved deeply by a visit to Elmina Castle in Cape Coast, where millions of Africans were once held in dungeons awaiting transport to the American colonies. The experience was emotionally difficult for all of us, one that cannot easily be expressed in words. The fort stands as a reminder of one of the greatest evils the world has seen and as a memorial to honor those that passed through the door of no return, as well as those who suffered and died in the dungeons of Elmina.
To say that our trip to Ghana was an incredible learning experience would be an understatement. As a doctoral student, the knowledge I gained is immeasurable and as a social worker, it was the opportunity of a lifetime to participate in a sharing of information across cultures. There are no words to adequately describe this country and its people. I believe I can speak for the entire team when I say we were deeply touched by the spirit we found in Ghana. To SUNY School of Social Welfare faculty and students and the International Studies Department, Westminster Presbyterian Church, and all of you who supported us….Medaase…( thank you).
-Diane Van Dusen