Elders in Indian Country are revered and respected for their knowledge and leadership skills. We transport them, offer elder services, care for their needs and love them. The words “abuse” and “elder” don’t generally enter our minds in the same context. Elder abuse is not traditional—however, it is happening in your community and throughout Indian Country. Maybe even to someone you know or love. The National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative (NIEJI) was funded in 2011 by the National Center on Elder Abuse and the Administration on Aging (AOA) to offer community education and prevention of elder abuse and research on abuse rates in Indian Country.
With the advent of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, NIEJI’s principal investigator and director of the National Resource Center on Native American Aging Twyla Baker-Demaray, said, “I think awareness of elder abuse is a big thing—we would like to get the word out that NIEJI is here, and we are doing what we can to help. We are trying to get people to start talking about elder abuse and stop sweeping it under the rug,” she said. “I would encourage people to do something for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day—coming together for such an important cause is always a good thing.”
According to the AOA, in 2007 American Indian and Alaskan Native elders made up 0.6 percent of the older population age 65 and over in the U.S. By 2050 that percentage is expected to account for 1 percent of the elder population. A National Elder Abuse Incidence Study (1998) that was requested by Congress found that for every reported incident of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation or self-neglect, about five others go unreported.
NIEJI Research Director Dr. Paula Carter, said they are in the process of contacting and working with over 560 federally recognized tribes throughout the country, including Alaskan Villages and Hawaiian Homesteads, to see if anything is written in their tribal constitutions about elder abuse. “We would like to write a model code the tribes can use to base their own codes on,” Carter said. Demaray added that of the 560 plus tribes they are working with, they have only found between 40-50 codes in tribal constitutions that address elder abuse. “Clearly the need is there,” Demaray said. “Even prior to our becoming NIEJI, we were getting calls on how to address elder abuse and asking for model codes. Tribes like to talk to each other; they like to share resources and ideas. We are trying to facilitate that cooperation that has already been happening.”
NIEJI is working to establish a resource center on elder abuse, housed at the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Grand Forks, to assist tribes in their efforts to address elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. The initiative is also working to develop and disseminate culturally appropriate resources for communities and stakeholders to use, including literature and access to existing tribal codes addressing indigenous elder abuse.
Carter said that NIEJI is just opening the door to looking at elder abuse in Indian Country and that they are building some infrastructure so they can plot and define statistics they gather. “We are also planning on looking at a restorative component to elder abuse so that communities can set up ways to restore the family at the end of the process. For instance, the abuser may be someone in the family or a relative caregiver. We want to help restore that family and offer non-punitive interventions,” she said.
Demaray said it has been an ongoing struggle getting rates of elder abuse in Indian Country. “Part of the reason NIEJI was started is because of the lack of understanding and statistics—just numbers; we don’t have a real good handle on how widespread elder abuse is in Indian Country. There is a whole lot of disparity in just about everything else in Indian Country: violent crime, suicide, domestic abuse. But as far as elder abuse, there just aren’t any good data sets or anything that you can point to and say, ‘This is what the rate is in Indian Country, and this is what’s going on. I think part of it goes back to the definition of elder abuse itself. A lot of the time you run into folks who, when you say elder abuse, they immediately think of physical abuse. That is just one facet of abuse; there is also financial exploitation, emotional and spiritual abuse, neglect, abandonment—it can take many forms.”
Demaray said that in honor of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day they would be wearing purple and tying purple ribbons down University Avenue and on their doors. NIEJI has also collaborated with the National Center on Elder Abuse to produce a public service announcement that will appear on Youtube and Facebook featuring tribal elders speaking terms of respect in their traditional languages.
According to the AOA website, “World Elder Abuse Awareness Day was launched on June 15, 2006 by the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations.”
For more information about NIEJI, visit their website at www.nieji.org. They can also be contacted by calling toll-free (855) 834-1572 or by email at: email@example.com.