Don't forget about me
As we were leaving the Flagstaff nursing home we saw her -- a diminutive elder, probably weighing about 80 pounds at the most, and in her 90s. The group of grade school and college students was leaving the Flagstaff nursing home when we saw her. She was a diminutive elder, probably weighing about 80 pounds at the most, and to be in her 90s. She was confined to a wheelchair but dresses traditionally. She was clean and alert.
Our translator reached her first and introduced herself. As they talked, our kids gathered around her. By then the elder's eyes shimmered with bright silvery tears. She held hands with each of us, talking in rapid Navajo.
"She is thanking us for coming to see her," she told us. "She is asking us not to forget about her."
The little elder explained that she comes from a place near Page and expects to go home next week. We wonder if that is true.
I put my first husband through college by working in nursing homes, and many of my elderly friends also believed they were going home--the following day, the following week, or the following month. Often this was not true. Just as often, the elderly I worked with were lucky to get even one visit a year. Of course, the wing I worked on was for the very ill and those suffering with dementia--reluctance to view a loved one in such condition makes visiting very difficult.
For a Navajo elder, confinement in a nursing home is a confusing and heartbreaking experience. Back home in Illinois, relatives were often sent to the nursing home, but in Indian Country, a large percentage of elders are still cared for at home.
Statistics tell us that of the 558 tribes recognized by the federal government, valuing the elderly is a common belief. A report by David Baldrich, the executive director of the Nation Indian Council on Aging, reveals that there are only 12 nursing homes in Indian Country--and family members provide 90 percent of long-term care for the elderly.
There are difficulties--despite a respect for its elders, abuse among the tribes is high. The socio-economic factors thought responsible for this abuse include the fact that the poverty rate for older Native Americans is three times the rate of the general population. Further, the majority of Indian homes are overcrowded, whereas only five percent of homes within the general population are considered overcrowded.
The above statistics combined with alcohol and other substance abuse, depression and suicide put members of Native American homes under severe stress.
There have been efforts to bring nursing homes into Navajo and Hopi communities for years now. It is likely that the grief and bewilderment of traditional elders finding themselves outside the boundaries of sacred mountains and other spiritual sites would be lessened, and the elders--repositories of valuable oral tradition and knowledge--would be closer to their families.
After our visit to the nursing home on Jan. 17 as I sat with the group, we expressed our sorrow at leaving our new friend behind. We brainstormed solutions to nursing homes--perhaps "daycare centers" where elderly family members could be left with licensed caretakers while younger family members were at work and picked up in the evening--would allow all but the very ill elderly to remain in their homes.
Though statistics express that the majority of elders continue to remain at home, there are still those--like the elder who greeted us--who find themselves lonely and depressed in nursing homes. Perhaps their families have had to move away to find work, or travel long distances to jobs. Maybe their own children have preceded them in leaving this world. For whatever reason, some of these residents feel lost and forgotten.
Nursing homes welcome volunteers and visitors to come in and help cheer the lives of their residents. Interested parties can fulfill their lives and the lives of people who have been confined because of old age or poor health. Most nursing homes have activity directors, who are delighted to get any help in enriching the lives of their charges.
A week after our visit to the nursing home, another friend and I went to pick up a load of firewood. While we waited for a third friend to arrive with her truck, two elderly Navajo women arrived. Although neither of us are spring chickens, we pitched in and helped load their truck. As we worked, the woman expressed her disappointment that her own children were not available to help her in times of need.
As we worked happily side by side with these elders, I found myself looking into the future. The age-old question touched my thoughts. Who will be there for me when I get old? It is a common human condition--hoping that one will not die alone and forgotten. Hopefully, my own children will be there for me. I pray so, but only time will tell.
(Northern Arizona writer S.J. Wilson is a regular contributor the Navajo Hopi Observer.)
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