The 23rd annual Arizona Indian Council on Aging (AICOA) Conference was held at the Radisson Fort McDowell Resort March 21-24. This year’s theme was “Strengthening Our Culture Through Our Elders.” The annual conference provides up-to-date information and education on issues facing American Indian elders, disabled adults and their caregivers.
The four-day conference had a full agenda of presentations, workshops, guest speakers and recreational activities. More than 600 seniors from Arizona tribes attended, including 30 from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
The conference began with opening statements from conference organizers. The highlights included the importance of seniors becoming active in their communities to ensure their voices are heard by their tribal leaders, continuing to push for change in their communities, and maintaining social connections with other seniors, their family and friends.
Salt River Community member Sterling Manuel, the 2010–11 AICOA president, gave a presentation about the history and background of AICOA. Other keynote speakers shared the struggles they face every day and how elders always want to be heard.
Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, Area Agency on Aging Region 8 Director Lee Begay presented an overview of the activities scheduled during the conference, and then the attendees left the general session and headed out to attend the morning’s workshops.
“The AICOA conference went well this year,” said Begay. The turnout was very good, an increase over last year, with more than 650 people either returning participants or first-timers. “We received a lot of feedback, and much of it was very positive. Even at the end of the conference, when we had open-microphone time, everyone said they enjoyed themselves at all the workshops and the Senior Games.”
An Opportunity for Learning
The workshops covered topics such as exercise, nutrition, caregiving, arthritis and advocating for the rights of elders. In one of the workshops, Pam Michaelson-Gambrell, R.N. from the Indian Health Service in Sells introduced seniors to the ancient form of exercise called tai chi. She explained that it’s used daily by elders in many Asian cities and that it helps improve mobility, flexibility and strength. Tai chi is also a good stress reliever, and because it also improves balance, it’s helpful for seniors to prevent falls. Falls are a leading cause of death and disability in seniors over age 65. “Anyone can do tai chi,” said Gambrell.
Another workshop, “Let’s Talk About Cancer,” was presented by Kendra Sabol, Cancer Control Program Manager from the Arizona Department of Health Services. The workshop taught Salt River seniors like Ethelene Ray about preventive steps to take to decrease their risk of being diagnosed with cancer.
Another workshop topic was how to prevent elder abuse, which is an ongoing issue in Native American communities around the state. Tips for living with arthritis and information on pain relief and medications were addressed in another workshop, and seniors also could learn about Social Security benefits and eligibility, and the Arizona Talking Book Library, which is for residents with visual or physical impairments (602-255-5578 or www.lib.az.us/braille/index.aspx).
On March 23, the annual Senior Games were held during the conference. The goal is to help the seniors of all abilities show what they can do in a fun, social competition. The individual event line-up consisted of the chicken throw, beanbag toss, paper crunch and basketball shots, and team events were the relay, aerobic dance competition and chair volleyball.
Individual seniors and teams from Salt River had great success in the games. Angie Dallas from SRPMIC Senior Services said the seniors enjoyed taking part in all the activities. The Salt River Majestics chair volleyball team was one of 27 teams, and they ended up victorious, winning the championship. The Majestics consisted of Ethelene Ray, Josie Durate, Elmer Ray, Wanda White-Eyes, Rubin Washington and Christine Osif.
Ethelene Ray said of their win, “it was the granddaddy of them all.” She said that they had the oldest chair volleyball team by player ages.
The Majestics were not the only group from Salt River to take first place. The Salt River Senior Steppers won first place in the team aerobic dance competition, dancing to the Tina Turner song “Proud Mary.”
Senior Stepper Patricia Enos-King talked about her experience this year with the aerobics competition. “We had nine groups [competing], and in other years there had only been five. [One of the competitors] was an Elvis impersonator and one was Michael Jackson; they had some good imaginative [routines]. We didn’t know there were so many people competing. It was encouraging, and [we thought] ‘Well, OK, we didn’t know if we were going to win.’” The aerobic dancers were judged on coordination, originality, the routine and enthusiasm.
Salt River Senior Services Honored
The SRPMIC Senior Services Department was named Elderly Services Program of the Year by the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA). The award was presented on March 23 during the conference at the Elder and Sponsorship Recognition Dinner.
Begay said the award is based on the criteria of contract monitoring, program development and collaboration with ITCA, Area Agency on Aging. Contract monitoring checks to see if a tribe’s senior services program has shown improvement since its previous contract monitoring. Program development is related to whether or not the program has enhanced existing senior services or developed new services. Collaboration with ITCA and the Area Agency on Aging, Region 8 is important to ensure the program supports the goals of the scope of work of the organization, meaning it addresses those issues that are determined to be most important to preserving senior health and well-being.
Sterling Manuel enjoyed the conference, saying it was one of the best that he has hosted in a while. “I enjoyed hearing some of the keynote speakers, like our very own Kelly Washington of the Cultural Resources Department,” said Manuel. “He spoke on how we need to get our young people to learn our own traditions and not those of other cultures. And on the last day all the elders and seniors got to voice their opinions on the conference. I really enjoyed hearing their concerns and how they enjoyed themselves.
“As president of AICOA I am not a yes-person; I am here to see and choose what I feel can benefit our seniors and elders, and I will do my very best,” continued Manuel. “And a goal of mine is to bring the next AICOA conference to the Community.”
Other members of the Community also enjoyed their time at the conference. Salt River senior Lauretta Johnson said she learned that eating a healthy diet is like “preventive maintenance” in cancer, and how native plants heal the body. Cindy Garcia liked learning how different tribes use different plants for different healing techniques.
“I learned to be more friendly. Usually you look past [people], [but it’s important to] smile and say hello. It makes me feel good inside,” said SRPMIC senior Josie Durate.
Community seniors have attended the AICOA conference for more than 10 years, according to Senior Center Supervisor Pam Garcia. Senior Services Director Tamara Luckett said attending events such as the AICOA conference is important to seniors for many reasons.
“It provides an opportunity for social engagement, to be with each other, meet new friends and see old friends, and it offers seniors a chance to connect to their culture, be active, have fun and experience healthy competition for senior programs,” Luckett said. “Participants have an opportunity to attend educational workshops and hear from keynote speakers on topics that affect them as seniors.”
Luckett said it is also important for Salt River seniors to be present and represent the Community at the AICOA conference.
“The SRPMIC seniors from the Senior Services Department demonstrate support for the vision and mission of the Arizona Indian Council on Aging as a representative body working on behalf of Arizona tribal elders to ensure that they have the resources and services they need to live healthy lives in their communities,” she said. “Good presentation also means that we have provided an opportunity for as many seniors from the Community as possible to experience the benefits of attending the conference. Several staff attended the conference to present workshops on topics relevant to seniors, such as adult protective services, caregiver issues and grandparents raising grandchildren.”
Staff helped with transporting the seniors to the conference and stayed to assist the seniors as needed during the conference.
After three days of learning, most seniors seemed happy and pleased with the experience. During the conversations at the tables, many seniors said they couldn’t wait to come back next year.