COMMENTARY: Tribal aging

by Oct 6, 2021OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor

The title is a little misleading, because we are going to talk about aging in general and elder abuse in specific. As we plow through (another consequence of getting older is an acute perception that time is going by faster) Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we should take a moment to consider the needs of our senior members of life.

As a Tribe, we are very protective of our aging population and have instituted some pretty impressive programs to help our people as they move through the golden years. The Tribe has its own senior citizens program, led by Deb West, who provide their mission statement: “To maintain our program to a level highly visible in our community where older persons and persons with disabilities can receive the assistance, they need in order to live with dignity and choices in their homes and communities for as long as possible”. There is also a “Senior Citizens Program Information Packet” that provides details on services and how to get to them. To review the packet, visit, or call 828-359-6860.

We have the most “Honor the Elders” days of any community I have ever lived in. At least once a quarter, pre-COVID-19, there was a day honoring our elders. Also pre-COVID-19, there were monthly bingo or bowling outings made available to show appreciation and a good time to our tribal elders. I made it to the official “tribal elder” age, recognized by the Tribe (59.5 years young) a couple of years ago, and I have to say it has been frustrating that my initiation years into the aged population have been limping along because one of the great things I was looking forward to was participating in Elders’ Day at the Cherokee Indian Fair. And for the second consecutive year, that ain’t happening. Unfortunately, we can’t gather as we would like. I am glad that some activities are still happening like the pageants and stickball. Normalcy is important to health too. You have to take it where you can get it.

We all have elders in our families that we love and respect. We revere them. We cherish them. Right? And we look to them for guidance, wisdom, and direction. Right? For many and maybe most of our elders, they get the love and respect they have earned with years of life experience and contribution to family and community.

But not all. Some are abandoned by their families. Some are abused by their families. Some are lonely. Some are homeless. Some are helpless. Some are setting in wheelchairs in hallways, or on benches, or laying alone in hospital beds. Some are desperate for attention-someone to talk to or to hold their hands, or a warm hug.

Some are living precious days in silence and fear because they live in situations that include neglect, or worse, abuse.

As we get older, our bodies and minds are less sharp. Old bones are more easily broken and joints that were once springy are now arthritic. We sometimes, or all the time, need a cane or crutch for support and to stay mobile. We need wheelchairs and sometimes we don’t have the strength to push them, so we need help to get from one place to another. The older we get, the more frequent are the trips to the dentist, optometrist (eye doc), general practitioner, otolaryngologist (ear doc), and as other things in our bodies start acting up and shutting down, other specialists. Some of us are bed ridden, completely dependent on others for even those things to sustain us.

Mentally, we are slowing down too. Matching names and faces isn’t as easy as it used to be. Details about persons, places, and things start to fade away. We become more child-like in that our ability to speak is impeded by our brains’ abilities to even recall and form words. We become afraid and angry and hurt. Sometimes we don’t know where we are or who we are with. And in some cases, we forget who we are.

The stress on the elderly is matched by the stress on the caretakers. Loving and caring for an elder eventually turns into a full-time job. For many families, hard choices are necessary. An elder may have so many health issues that a family cannot effectively care for them. Some elders do not have family members at all. There are those who outlive all their family members, and some had none beyond their parents.

Elders are many times the victims of domestic abuse and violence. It can be a well-meaning relative or friend who treats an elder like a child, talking down to them or harshly when the elder can’t do or say something they used to be able to do. It could be an insensitive caregiver who is getting paid to do a job and treats an elder like a product or livestock, to be fed and cleaned up after, but not necessarily to be treated with dignity and respect. It may be someone who takes out their frustrations on the elder, who perceive him to be weak because he is old. It may be someone in need of fast cash, who invades the elder’s home to steal money or property. It may even be one of his own family.

I will share here examples of some of the abusive situations elders might find themselves in. These are fictitious stories and the persons and events are just hypothetical; the way it could happen. The stories are courtesy of the Alberta Elder Abuse Awareness Council.

Peter’s Story

“Peter wanted to remain living in his home, but he really needed someone to help him with his day-to-day care. His niece Mandy had always loved her Uncle Peter and since she was between apartments, it was decided that she would move into his home and assist him with his daily tasks. Mandy tries her best, and she can be very kind at times. But at other times, she loses patience with how slowly Peter moves. She’ll sometimes shove him out of the way if she’s in a hurry, resulting in more than one tumble and bruise. She tries to be patient, but often her frustration leads to insults, name-calling, and door slamming. Neighbors had heard the shouting and Peter’s sharp cries of pain from time to time. One of these neighbors was finally compelled to call the police when she heard Peter’s continual cries through the bathroom window. Police found him on the floor of the bathroom with a shattered hip and bleeding head. He had been laying there in pain for some time after Mandy, frustrated with having to help him with his personal hygiene, pushed him off the toilet and left the house in a rage.”

Janet’s Story

Janet appreciated her grandson helping her to run errands.  Since her husband’s death, simple things like getting groceries or getting to the bank had become difficult for her.  Her grandson, Nicholas, had offered to help and for a while it seemed like the perfect arrangement.  He would take her to the bank and wait while she deposited her check and withdrew the cash she needed.  Nicholas then drove her wherever she needed to do her shopping. As winter approached Nicholas told Janet it would probably be much easier on her if he just did the errands for her while she stayed warm and cozy at home.  Because he had been so helpful for so many months, Janet thought nothing of signing her pension check over to her grandson, who would make her purchases and deposit the rest in her account. It took several months to realize that Nicholas had not, in fact, been depositing the balance in her account.  He did her shopping as needed, but pocketed the difference, causing Janet’s account to dwindle.  It wasn’t until a check she had written to cover her insurance had bounced that Janet realized her grandson had been helping himself to her pension.”

Margaret’s Story

“Leaving her home to move in with her daughter and her family was supposed to be the best thing for Margaret.  Her son-in-law Tom had always made her a little uneasy, but she adored her daughter and grandchildren.  Sadly, Margaret’s move has only confirmed that her instincts about her son-in-law had been right. Tom is always good to her when her daughter is around.  But as soon as others are out of earshot, Tom’s verbal abuse and intimidation begins.  He calls her stupid.  He mocks the way she moves or talks.  He tells her that she disgusts him and that she had better watch her step or he’ll send her to a home.  He threatens that if Margaret breathes a word of what he says, to her daughter, he will deny it, take all her money and leave her to the wolves. Margaret’s daughter is puzzled as to why her mother has become so withdrawn.  She refuses to leave her room except for meals.  And even then, she hardly eats and rarely speaks.  Her daughter wonders why her mother would shut down like this in such a loving environment but assumes that she’s just adjusting and will come around.  Her husband agrees completely.”

If you are a victim of elder abuse or suspect that an elder is being abused, don’t wait. Contact the local police immediately. If it is an emergency, dial 911. Locally, the Cherokee Police Dispatch is 828-497-4131.

Care for the elderly should not be an afterthought for the elder and definitely not for the family. Every effort should be made to include the elder in the decision-making process, realizing that it is hard for the elderly to talk about relinquishing freedoms that they have had all their lives. The plans should be about the safety and dignity of the elder. To achieve those goals, consideration will have to be made for caregivers, whether family member or paid services. As with most other things in life, finances will impact the direction of your plans, so plan early. Hard, emotional decisions are inevitable as the aging process continues. Sometimes, doing what is best will be the most difficult choice. Be prepared to deal with and reconcile the guilt that will come if you are a caregiver of a loved one who has to make the decision that it is no longer emotionally or medically possible for you to keep your loved one at home. Be at peace that no one may legitimately judge you for your decisions because it is impossible for them to be in your shoes. Use research, relationship, patience, and prayer as tools to gain the best solution for you and your elder.

To the caregivers, I have a word of praise. Those families who share the privilege of caring for your elder, while it is a blessing that you enjoy, it is also a sacrifice, of time, money, personal life, and effort. Caregiving can take away from important personal needs and it can turn into a full-time job and, in the process, sacrifice other important goals and relationships. Being elderly will cause a loved one to become totally dependent and require time and resources that you may not have to give. And it can be a thankless responsibility, because as we age, we may become incapable of reciprocating the love that is given. Even a simple “thank you” may stop coming. And when the time comes to put your elder in the hands of professionals, it will be heartbreaking for both you and the elder. Give yourself permission to grieve and accept too that this is a loving thing to do. Find and trust people like Deb and those caregivers at Tsali Manor, who make it their business to ensure the proper care and respect of our elders. I am just entering that phase of my life and I have already experienced the courtesy, professionalism, and care of these fine elder providers.

I’ve seen tee shirts that have the slogan “Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart”. There is certainly a truth to be had from that saying. Despite the gloomy tone, I am looking forward to an exciting and productive transition into the tribal elder population and even retirement. I am hopeful because I have great examples of tribal elders to emulate, and I see the love and care that our tribal government and citizens provide our aging population. There is also a truth that should temper everyone’s thoughts on the elderly, and that is, “ready or not, here it comes” for all of us!