Although Native Americans make up a small portion of the U.S. population, they are the fastest growing group of older people in the country, speakers at a conference on aging said Tuesday.
During a morning symposium at Haskell Indian Junior College, Robert John, a research associate at the Gerontology Center at Kansas University, which co-sponsored the conference with the Gerontological Society of America, encouraged students to consider working in the field of aging.
"The American Indian population is aging rapidly," he said, kicking off the one-day conference. "In fact, the American Indian population is the fastest aging population in the United States. The opportunities are really limitless."
Joining John was Carol Schutz, deputy executive director of the Gerontological Society of America; Spero Manson, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver; Ramona Ornelas, chief of policy analysis for Indian Health Service, Rockville, Md.; and Shirley Bagley, assistant director of special programs for the National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Md.
SCHUTZ SAID one of the goals of the GSA, a professional society, is to increase the number of people doing research on minority aging. She echoed other speakers at the conference when she said there is not much material available about Native American aging.
Bagley said the overall mission of the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, is to support research about aging. But she said the NIA is especially interested in people over age 85, older women and older ethnic and racial minorities.
Ornelas said it is difficult to convince policymakers to dedicate time and money to Indian aging because the number of Indian elders is relatively small. Attention has been given to native youths, but research also must be conducted about elders, Ornelas said.
"Unfortunately, I think our elders are the forgotten generation," she said. "There was a time when they were the hub of our families, the hub of our communities."
ORNELAS said she believes the Native American culture is at a "real danger period" because of the breakdown of the family, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and child and elder abuse.
During an afternoon session at KU, Manson said one of the major challenges is trying to understand how Native American elders cope with their circumstances. In 1980, the life expectancy for an American Indian/Alaska native was 65 years, eight years less than the life expectancy for whites. Native Americans are more impoverished than other groups, and alcoholism is more prevalent among Native Americans.
The challenges are many, Ornelas said.
"But I feel really hopeful," she said. "There are people out there who have a sincere desire to help out."