Caring for Tribal Elders

by Debra Whitman

I grew up next to the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state and I remember how native elders were revered throughout the community. At the annual powwow the elders shared their history through song and dance, and all generations sat together, joining in the chanting and drumming.

Eighty-six-year-old Pearl Nation, a tribal elder on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, waves to one of the purebred bison released Thursday near Poplar in northeast Montana.

Eighty-six-year-old Pearl Nation, a tribal elder on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, waves to one of the purebred bison released Thursday near Poplar in northeast Montana.

Those memories rushed back as AARP’s Public Policy Institute released its most recent report, “Lifelong Disparities among Older American Indians and Alaska Natives.” AARP, along with researchers from Western Carolina University and the International Association for Indigenous Aging, took a closer look at aging American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) because the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, the number of AI/ANs age 65 and older will more than triple and AI/ANs age 85 and over will increase more than sevenfold.

The report found that AI/ANs age 50 and over have lower life expectancy, less education, lower income and employment, and worse access to health care than the same-aged U.S. population. These findings highlight a challenge for policymakers: Too often, aging American Indians and Alaska Natives are not getting the services they need to move ahead but remain stuck with problems that have lasted for
generations.

The authors cite many reasons for that deep unmet need, but one in particular drew my attention. While
my personal memories involve reservation life, data suggests a growing number of AI/ANs live beyond
rural reservations and tribal lands. This ongoing migration has profound consequences for the well-being of Native Americans and efforts to help them. For example, the report cited a 2008 examination
of U.S. Census data by the National Urban Indian Family Coalition that found a 23 percent increase between 1970 and 2000 in AI/ANs of all ages who did not reside on tribal lands. It also referenced more
recent analysis of U.S. Census data by the Urban Indian Health Insti¬tute that found that the number
of AI/ANs residing in urban areas increased by 34 percent from 2000 to 2010. And according to the
authors’ analysis for this study, just 44 percent of AI/ ANs age 50 and over reside on tribal lands.

The authors’ conclusion: Services need to reach AI/AN elders wherever they may live, including in
urban and metropolitan areas across the nation, and strategies designed to reach this population should
reflect that changing reality.

I couldn’t agree more. The exponential growth of aging AI/ANs is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom, experience, knowledge and contributions that they make to communities across the country.

Policymakers have much to do to address long-standing socioeconomic and health coverage disparities that have historically characterized their lives and which remain, to a large extent, unresolved. This new research presents some compelling ideas to move forward.

Debra Whitman is AARP’s chief public policy officer and leads policy development, analysis and research, as well as global thought leadership that supports and advances the interests of individuals
age 50-plus and their families.

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