New efforts to serve displaced Native elders

When I lived in Bush Alaska, I used to love seeing the Native elders at the potlucks. They came from up and down the Yukon in all kinds of weather to sit together and share food and stories. As the moose nose soup bubbled and acres of salmon were placed before everyone, the feeling of community was so powerful and affirming, it simply felt wonderful to be there.

It doesn’t feel wonderful to see Alaska Native elders in Anchorage long term care facilities. There are an estimated 250 Alaska Natives from villages who reside in Anchorage assisted living and nursing homes. They come to town for medical care and are discharged to facilities for rehabilitation. They hope to get well enough to go home.

But their families often can’t afford to visit them and there is no one in town who knows them, no way to get their traditional foods, and not even photos of the people they love on the wall. We urban non-Native people may not fully appreciate how devastating this is for village elders. Disconnected from their villages, lonely and longing for anything familiar, they suffer an unintended side effect, a cultural isolation that crushes their spirits.

I’m not the only person who thinks that some of them die because of their sudden removal from home and a subsistence lifestyle. Elders in Bethel told the Commission on Aging, “We send them to Anchorage and they come home in a pine box.”

The Alaska Native Elder Health Advisory committee members were so concerned that they recommended the creation of an outreach program. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium agreed and approved a new position and project budget.

Many thanks to Kay Branch for her leadership, both in working to establish this program, and for bringing traditional foods lunches to Native elders in Anchorage’s two nursing homes. Kay and her assistant, Mellisa Johnson, are building a database that identifies the village elders in Anchorage facilities. They hope to recruit and train Native volunteers to reach out to these elders.

Mellisa, herself Inupiaq, has a real sense of urgency about this project.

“When we forget about our elders, we are losing touch with our culture,” she says. “If we neglect them, everybody loses.”

There is a missing piece in this puzzle. There are dozens of Native organizations with offices in Anchorage. The village elders in Anchorage facilities are their shareholders and beneficiaries. The employees of these organizations are natural candidates to become home visitors.

Respecting the elders is a core Native value so it makes sense for Native organizations to recruit staff as volunteer visitors for the Consortium’s program. It’s been hard to do before now, because the organizations didn’t have a way to find their elders in Anchorage homes. With the Consortium’s new program, they will.

I’m hoping for more good people like Desiree Lekanof at Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, who is working hard to recruit staff volunteers to visit Aleut elders.

Ombudsmen are dedicated to protecting the rights, safety and welfare of older Alaskans in long term care facilities, but we can’t bring Native elders their culture. Our faces are not the ones they long to see.

If you are interested in becoming a Volunteer Long Term Care Ombudsman, call 334-4480 or 1-800-730-6393.