Distance doesn’t have to become isolation for Indigenous elders

Council offers tools and assistance for keeping up with older relatives, preventing the serious health effects of loneliness

By: - September 20, 2021 5:30 am

(Getty Images)

Call grandma.

That’s Larry’s Curley’s message. 

So I did. It went something like this: 

“Grandma, it’s Shaun. How are you?”

“Hi babba! I’m great, how are you? How is your mom?”

We went back and forth a good half hour, catching up on family business and chatting a little football before she had to leave for an appointment. We hadn’t spoken in a few weeks. I could hear the joy in her voice, and I ended the conversation feeling better than I did earlier in the day. 

That’s the point, says Curley. 

“That is the way to begin a relationship or conversation. Just ask anything.” Curley (Diné) is the co-founder and executive director for the National Indian Council On Aging

He said conversations with elders are part of a significant effort young people must engage, especially considering the toll the pandemic has left on Native American communities. 

That's what's lost to our next generation of young people. And that feeling of the Indian-ness that our elders have in historical knowledge — the traditions, the customs, the songs, the prayers. That's all lost. We have lost that during this pandemic.

– Larry Curley, executive director, National Indian Council On Aging

Liz McKenzie (Diné) is part of that younger generation working to stay in touch with elders and family. McKenzie lives in Albuquerque and has been disconnected with their relations on the Navajo Nation due to pandemic restrictions. 

“It’s really hard. Because especially one of my grandmas, she’s getting older, and pandemic life has been very difficult for people,” McKenzie said.“She’s such a strong woman and she’s powering through.”

Tribal nations in New Mexico closed during the pandemic, and many still have strict protocols for visitors. People like McKenzie have to choose between seeing relatives and staying safe by adhering to public health orders. McKenzie chooses the latter.

“It’s such a bummer,” McKenzie said, “because I want to be close to them. My grandparents raised me, so it’s just this distance, it’s just so tough.”

Curley acknowledges the distance is draining for communities, and isolation is becoming the norm. According to the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in four American adults 65 and older are considered socially isolated, and this can lead to health risks that are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“There are individuals out there who are mourning, and they can’t go to the funerals because of the restrictions,” he said. “And so that adds to the mental wellbeing of individuals.”

 The lack of events is hurting the community, too, he said, even for elders who live with family in intergenerational homes. 

“Even they are feeling isolated from the rest of the community,” he said. “There are no community events happening. There’s no powwow. There’s no ceremonies. There’s no dances, There’s no rodeos even. That’s the lifeblood of what keeps a community together.”

The National Indian Council On Aging has put together a website with information so people can help notice signs of social isolation with elder relatives. It also connects caregivers to assist them with any isolation issues — and even assistance with stipends for the work they do taking care of elders. 

Curley said there are more than 4.5 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S., and wellbeing can be as simple as speaking to someone about their  loneliness or reaching out to neighbors to check in while a caregiver  takes time to themselves.

“There are people out there who are providing that kind of care to their people that they feel like they’re alone,” he said. “And we’re trying to let them know that they’re not alone, that they can get together. They can talk to one another and support one another.”

NICOA is also running a social-media effort encouraging youth to reach out to their elders with letters or videos. The #ConnectedIndigenousElders campaign also wants to encourage tribal knowledge for youth and engagement with leaders and decision-makers in their communities.

Technology is key. “I go to a restaurant, I see Grandma. I see the parents and grandchildren. They all have a smartphone in front of them,” he said. “They don’t even talk to each other.”

So Curley suggests families on their phones make videos talking with one another and ask for stories that can be recorded. “Record grandma as she talks about how it used to be in the old days,” he said. “And that’s how I think that we can maintain, re-affirm our traditions, our customs our language. Technology can be used that way.”


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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.