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Coordinated response to help tribal elder victims of abuse needed: How do we address limited community services and supports?


By Cynthia LaCounte, Director of the Office for American Indian, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian Programs, U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA), Administration for Community Living (ACL)

November 27, 2019

As a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa I am proud to live and celebrate my heritage every day.  I appreciate the recognition and awareness that Native American Heritage month brings, though the many issues faced by tribal elders deserve ongoing focus every month. I learned this firsthand when I worked as Director for Montana Tribes at the PSA VII Area Agency on Aging. This past year I learned from another perspective, having had the joy and challenge of helping manage the demands of caregiving for my father through varied health concerns. 

One of the issues my office at the Administration on Aging (AoA) continues to advocate and work to address is the issue of elder abuse. This is an issue that continues to haunt our elders and tribal communities, and based on recent research it seems to be more prevalent than we want to acknowledge. We don’t like to talk about it. Communities, leaders, families and elders believe if they keep quiet, they don’t have to face the feelings of shame or fear that can come with identifying themselves as a victim of financial exploitation, physical, mental, or spiritual abuse. The idea of being a “victim” conflicts with the storied history of tribal members’ strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

I was happy to lend my support to assist The International Association of Indigenous Aging (IA2) in reaching out to find health care providers, elder services staff, and Adult Protective Service workers to participate in their needs assessment on screening and managing of elder abuse by tribal health care providers. Since 2012, I have worked hard to improve access and services for Native elders across the country. Supporting and enhancing all Older Americans Act (OAA) programs and services for tribal elders and other diverse populations has been both my professional and personal mission. Title III and VI services funded through the OAA, are programs I oversee that are particularly critical for our tribal elders. Sometimes meals provided by these programs are the only food an elder might eat in a week.  Transportation provided by these programs helps provide a source of human contact to elders in some of the most rurally isolated areas of our reservations.

It came as no surprise to read in the IA2 report that one of the biggest factors identified by health care providers as a barrier to addressing elder abuse is lack of or limited access to community services for elder victims. This summer our office hosted the Annual National Title VI program Technical and Training Conference. I don’t believe there are a harder working group of people than the Title VI directors, managers, cooks and drivers. I listened to official testimony along with my Federal colleagues, as tribal leaders and staff described, with heartfelt emotion and often tears, the challenges their programs face every day trying to serve the diverse needs of their elders. Needs that they repeatedly acknowledge are greater than the services they can provide.

Right now, Title VI programs are the literal lifeline for many health and public issues, and this includes responding to abuse of our Native elders. However, channeling Title VI program’s work into addressing the issue of abuse may literally mean taking food off the plate of one of their tribal elders. I fully acknowledge and believe our work at the Federal level on this issue, like so many, requires a more coordinated approach.  I hope to be able to share the findings and lessons learned from this report with my Federal, state and tribal colleagues to talk more about how we can do better addressing the issue of elder abuse and support our local tribes and tribal programs in their work to do so as well.

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