By Lance Robertson, Administrator and Assistant Secretary for Aging
When I attended the HHS Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee Meeting in Alaska earlier this year, I met with Alaska Native tribes in the towns of Tok and Eagle, both located a few hours from Fairbanks, not far from the Canadian border. Tok bills itself as the “coldest inhabited community in North America with warm, friendly people.” Eagle, population 86, hosts a checkpoint on the Yukon-Quest Dog Sled Race that runs each year in February. My visit was arranged by the Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Dena’ Nena’ Henash organization, which represent the interests and promotes the wellness, education, and culture of the Interior Alaska Native people.
In September, I attended the National Indian Council on Aging Conference at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, CA—an amazing opportunity to talk with tribal elders about what they need to remain vital, engaged members of their communities.
These are the people I’m thinking of as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title VI of the Older Americans Act. This amendment to the 1965 OAA legislation recognizes that older American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people are “a vital resource entitled to all benefits and services available.” It also affirms that these “services and benefits should be provided in a manner that preserves and restores their respective dignity, self-respect, and cultural identities.”
That’s what I saw in Temecula, Eagle, and Tok when I visited the ACL-funded programs there.
I am proud to say that Services provided under Title VI include home and community-based services, such as support for caregivers of elders and grandparents caring for grandchildren. In 2017 alone, ACL awarded 270 three-year grants for nutrition and supportive services and 233 three-year grants for caregiver services. That’s why we are so pleased that the FY 2019 appropriation passed by Congress includes more than $1 million increase in Title VI funding.
ACL programs—funded through Title VI as well as other sources—make a big difference for both older people and people with disabilities in Indian Country. ACL works with the Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, the Department of Justice, and other public and private groups to raise awareness of the issues and address the challenges faced by elders and people with disabilities of all ages in tribal communities in both rural and urban areas around the country.
For example, elder abuse and neglect affects elders from all backgrounds, including American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. In September, ACL awarded a grant to the University of North Dakota (UND), where the National American Indian Elder Justice Initiative has been housed since 2009. The resource center assists tribes in raising public awareness of elder abuse and neglect and developing laws to protect elders as well as programs to prevent and address elder abuse and neglect. ACL also awarded a grant to the Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel, Alaska to develop an Elder Justice Program designed to reduce harm and mistreatment of elders through a culturally appropriate, holistic, trauma-informed program that helps support caregivers, build resiliency, and meet the needs of elders with disabilities.
ACL also recently expanded its Native American Independent Living Demonstration program, which enables Centers for Independent Living to better meet the needs of Native Americans with disabilities living in Indian Country. The program promotes insights and strategies and promising practices for outreach, skills training, peer counseling, advocacy, and transition services to support independent living.
Every time I meet with tribal leaders, I am impressed with their engagement and their willingness to speak out for their needs. This is the type of engagement that is the key to building a person-centered health care system that truly meets the unique needs of all people across this great land.
In November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month and the rich cultural diversity and traditions Native Americans bring to our Nation. I’m honored to work with tribal leaders from coast to coast to continue to improve opportunities for Native elders and people with disabilities to live independently in their communities.