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They're doing a feel-good thing

Bad habits are a target for Sisters Staying Healthy, a group of African American women learning how to grow old well.

July 13, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

Etta Cummings stood in the back of a small room filled with sympathetic faces. Her failing eyes were obscured by big, dark glasses. She leaned on her cane, clutched her bright caftan and prepared to take one very big step.

"My name is Etta Cummings. I'm a diabetic. My diabetes is totally out of control. I didn't take it seriously for many, many years," she said by way of introduction. "By this time, my health started deteriorating, so I'm on the run to correct it."

Heads nodded in support. Other women's stories poured forth. Of diabetes and struggles with weight. The difficulty of caregiving and the effort of exercise. The temptation of unhealthy food and the jettisoning of "toxic relationships." The fear of doctors and the burden of stress -- code, to many of those present, for depression.

One Thursday evening each month, a dozen or so African American women in their 50s or older make their way to the third-floor lounge at Olympia Medical Plaza in Mid-Wilshire to learn how to grow old well. After half a century or more of putting other people first, of bad habits and backsliding, they have decided they want to change their lives and help one another do the same.

For this sisterhood of the hopeful and health-minded, Cummings was both fellow striver and cautionary tale. The wiry 69-year-old had discovered a diabetic ulcer in her foot. She went to the doctor, she told the group during this, her first meeting, because she couldn't see the wound, couldn't bandage it, "but I could smell it."

The fact that these women, a.k.a. Sisters Staying Healthy, meet each month to talk about dementia and brain fitness, menopause and sexual health, stress reduction and vegetarian cooking is unusual enough in an era in which Americans spend billions of dollars to avoid aging altogether.

But what they are trying to do is even harder because of who they are. African American women are among the least healthy women in America. Even in health-conscious Los Angeles, they have the highest death rates from all causes, but especially from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

"There is inequality in life expectancy," said Eleanor Brownn, the group's founder, champion, cheerleader and increasingly slender poster child. "It's not just the length of your life, but also, when you start looking at African Americans, we're sicker than everybody."

But not if Brownn can do something about it.

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It was 2002 when Brownn put it all together. She was attending a women's health conference at UC San Francisco when a chart flashed on the big screen. "Life expectancy," it read, and the bar for African Americans was much shorter than for every other ethnicity. Frighteningly shorter.

Brownn started thinking of all the people she knew who had died prematurely. Her co-worker, who died of lung cancer in her 50s. Her foster brother, who was 8 when he succumbed after a straightforward operation to correct a "lazy eye." Her beloved father, who died at 60 of bladder cancer. She heard her mother's voice questioning the care those loved ones had received from a white medical establishment.

Growing up in South Los Angeles, Brownn remembered finding a lump in her breast when she was 14, two months after her father's death, and waiting a year before telling anyone "because I was afraid to go to the doctor." She finally confided in her worried mother, but it took them another year to muster the trust to pursue medical treatment. The lump was benign.

And she thought about her first real job, as an outreach worker in the Hypertension Control Project in Watts. Brownn spent her days contacting African Americans who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure to make sure they were taking their medication and seeing the doctor for follow-up care.

Most weren't.

"They didn't trust the doctor," she said. "They knew they were sick. They didn't want to take the pills. They thought they were being experimented on. That's what resonates with me. I heard this over and over and over again."

Brownn has focused her career as a community advocate on healthcare issues. But that "aha!" moment at UCSF made her realize that she needed to do more -- because that bar chart "meant lives lost."

As she likes to point out, "The numbers speak for themselves."

Life expectancy for black women is 75 years, according to "Death in the Golden State," a 2007 report by the Public Policy Institute of California. For white women, it's 80 years, Latinas, 83 and Asians, 85.

So a few months after returning home from San Francisco, Brownn launched Life-Long: Sisters Staying Healthy with a small conference on black women's health. It has since become an annual event. Last November's conference, funded by public and private grants, brought together healthcare professionals, educators and 120 women.

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