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Brandi Jewett, Forum News Service, Published June 23 2013

UND puts spotlight on elder abuse in Native American communities

GRAND FORKS – Twenty purple people constructed from cardboard stand guard around Grand Forks.

The text on their chests recounts incidents that often remain private.

A grandfather verbally abused by his grandson. A grandmother slapped by her daughter.

Those studying the matter can only estimate how many elders are abused in Native American communities.

According to University of North Dakota professor Jacque Gray, that estimation is one in 10.

“This is often a fear to divulge abuse,” she said. “Many times it is a family that is being abusive.”

Gray is associate director of indigenous programs at the university’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences. She and a small staff are behind the National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative based in the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health.

NEIJI aims to establish a resource center for elder abuse, identify and create tribe-specific elder abuse codes and develop culturally appropriate resources for those who may encounter elder abuse situations.

The cardboard cutouts are part of a push to spread awareness about elder abuse during June. That push also included a June 14 webcast to recognize Worldwide Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15.

To assist these elderly populations, the initiative needs information from them, but gathering it is not an easy task.

Many elders often don’t think of yelling at them or taking their money as abuse, according to UND professor and initiative research director Paula Carter. Carter is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

“Native Americans typically talk about disrespect, not abuse,” she said during the webcast. “In my own family, when my mother was afraid or if something would have been going on, she would never have said ‘I’m being abused,’ but ‘I’m being disrespected.’ ”

Other abuses aren’t reported out of fear that the caregiver will be taken away and the elder will be placed in a nursing home, according to Carter.

In attempt to gauge how prevalent elder abuse is in Indian Country, Gray and her staff surveyed more than 17,000 elders from 200 tribes in the United States.

The survey couldn’t provide definite numbers but did give them insight into an unmet need.

Less than 1 percent of respondents said they use elder abuse prevention programs, but 13 percent said they would if services were available.

Similar to gathering information, pinpointing the cause of elder abuse isn’t straightforward.

Greed, caregiver stress and feelings of entitlement are just some factors the initiative has identified as leading to elder abuse. John Eagleshield, a community health representative of Standing Rock Nation for 29 years, sees the cause as something even deeper.

“For those that are my kinsmen and tribesmen, you always ask for compassion in case you may say the wrong thing. I’m about to say the wrong thing, but it’s a bias of mine,” he said during the NEIJI webcast. “There is no elder abuse in Indian County. But there is a lot of elderly abuse.”

The difference between the terms is that elders are thought of as good and wise, living by tradition and passing it on to their children and grandchildren, Eagleshield said. To him, those who are just considered aged and did not live by or pass on tradition are the ones susceptible to abuse. According to Eagleshield, putting emphasis back on tradition could be the key to preventing more abuse – something that could not be accomplished without elders.

“We need elders to step forward,” he said. “There’s a lot of elderly that need their help.”