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March Mania

North Dakota agency helps Native elders – one data set at a time

Brad Hawk, an Indian Health Systems Administrator at the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, speaks at a gala celebrating the National Resource Center on Native American Aging's 25th year in operation. Joe Bowen/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS -- How do you care for American Indian elders? How might their needs be different than those of other Native communities or the general population? How might they be the same?

Questions like those produced the National Resource Center on Native American Aging, a Grand Forks-based agency that works to help tribes across the United States care for their elders, who often hold a place of high cultural regard. Current and former resource center staff celebrated its 25th anniversary at a small get-together this week at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

“I truly, truly feel so fortunate and blessed to be doing the work that we do every single day,” Collette Adamsen, the center’s director and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, told a crowd of about 50, including Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown and interim University of North Dakota President Josh Wynne. “I couldn’t ask for a better position or better work, working for my people, especially our Native elders.”

In a nutshell, the resource center helps tribes across the United States administer a survey -- “needs assessment” -- of their elders, analyzing how they compare to elders in other tribal communities and the general population. Center staff then crunch that data and help tribes use it to apply for federal grants to fix the problems indicated by the analysis. For instance, a tribe with elders who struggle with mobility might work to install wheelchair ramps.

Staff at the center can also train Native elders’ caregivers, and they’ve put together a wellness program tribes can use to help their elders stay active and independent. All of the center’s services are free.

There’s also a knock-on benefit, too: it’s easier for American Indian tribes and organizations to advocate for federal and state funding with easily digestible stats in hand, and data collected by the resource center can help strengthen their arguments.

That data is one reason the center got started. It began in the mid-1990s when workers and students at the Center for Rural Health nabbed a grant to study American Indian elders, a demographic for which there was little available data at the time.

“I think they suffered ... from the plight of being sparsely populated,” said Rick Ludtke, a longtime UND professor who helped get the resource center off the ground. “But, you know, that’s a weak excuse for not providing any information on a unique population.”

Leander "Russ" McDonald, a student at the time who would go on to head the resource center from 2007 to 2009, pried a packet of mortality data from the Indian Health Service. From that, the first “life table” on American Indians was produced, which demographers can use to measure a population’s longevity.

Tribal communities and Native elders are often overlooked, Adamsen said.

“It’s like out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “Especially when Congress gets together to allocate dollars to certain programs or initiatives.”

So how might a Native elder differ from the general population? They’re generally younger and have a shorter life expectancy, McDonald said, and have higher rates of chronic disease but fewer limits on their activities. It's a net effect that could be a function of rural and poorer living as much as culture.

“The tribal elders and those living in rural communities learned how to get along better without,” McDonald told the Herald. “And to not cry around about what issues they were having in regard to limitations.”

The center is federally funded and operates underneath the Administration for Community Living, which is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s housed within the Center for Rural Health at UND and has an annual budget of about $1.7 million -- spread across five years -- for staff salaries and grants.

The resource center recently received $385,000, spread over 25 months, from AARP -- formerly the American Association of Retired Persons -- to help study Native elders who live in urban settings, which can sometimes be hundreds of miles from tribal lands and programming.