Courtesy AARP Oklahoma
AARP Oklahoma's Inter-Tribal Community Group addres ses the health, cultural preservation and transportation issues of Native Am ericans in Oklahoma.

Survey Finds Elders' Biggest Worry Is Health, Biggest Joy Is Grandkids

Tanya H. Lee

AARP Oklahoma Joins Effort to Improve Health of American Indians

A survey asking 40-year-old-plus American Indians and Alaska Natives in Oklahoma what's on their minds found that their single most important challenge was personal health problems, followed by staying healthy, the cost of living, retirement and transportation.

Their greatest joy: seeing their grandchildren be happy and being part of their lives. The AARP Tribal Community Survey Report, a joint effort of AARP Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City Area Inter Tribal Health Board, was released at the 6th Annual Tribal Epidemiology Center Public Health Conference in April.

Mashell Sourjohn, Muskogee Creek, AARP Oklahoma's associate state director of community outreach, explains, "At AARP our mission is to enhance the quality of life for all as we age. In Oklahoma, because we do have such a large population of Native Americans and have 39 federally- and state-recognized tribal nations, it's a priority for us to address Native American health."

Sourjohn says the results of the survey validated the work AARP has been doing in Oklahoma. "We started the Native American Traditional Healthy Cooking program simply because Native Americans consistently rank high in health disparities in cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke and cancer. All of those have the same risk factors: lack of access to healthy food, physical inactivity, tobacco use. We thought the traditional healthy cooking strategy was a great way to blend cultural traditional education along with education regarding the risk factors of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes." That personal health issues rank so high among challenges the AI/AN population faces shows that the organization is on the right track, she says.

Tom Anderson, Cherokee, is director of the Oklahoma Area Tribal Epidemiology Center and acting executive director of the Oklahoma City Area Inter Tribal Health Board. The board, he explains, "is a non-profit corporation that was established around 1972 to serve the health interests of tribes in the IHS service area that includes Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.

"We serve as the unified voice of the 43 recognized tribes in the area and we advocate for their concerns to other stakeholders, including the federal government. We believe that whatever American Indian/Alaska Native interests are, especially in the health area, we need to be united in our perspective and message," he says.

"What we do is we try to equip tribes to speak the foreign language of the federal government and that foreign language is data. You've got to write in terms of quantifiable results before they listen. So we're equipping tribes to be better at writing their own health story using data, empirical numbers that are hard to refute," explains Anderson.

AARP Oklahoma's work with the Oklahoma Area Tribal Epidemiology Center, established in 2005, includes the annual Indian Elder Honors program. AARP honors 50 Native Americans from all of the state's recognized tribal nations. "We recognize elders for their contribution to their community, their tribal nation, their state or even just their family. We've had individuals who have been foster parents to tribal leaders to individuals who teach cultural classes." This year the honoring event is set for Oct. 7; applications are available at and are due June 30.

Any tribal citizen may submit a nomination. "The nominees are not necessarily heroes in the general sense, but they are heroes to someone," says Anderson. "It may be because they maintain the churchyard or the cemetery. It's not that they've done something outstanding, but they are recognized for their community contribution." AARP also works with the TEC on its annual Oklahoma Area TEC Public Health Conference and with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and several Oklahoma tribes on the annual Preparing for the 7th Generation health conference.

AARP Oklahoma's other contributions to the health and well-being of tribal citizens include fighting electricity rate hikes. "The survey found that more than half, 53 percent, of respondents said that cost of utilities, electricity and water, was a major concern for them. In 2012 we intervened in an Oklahoma Gas & Electric rate hike of $73 million and we ended up with a substantial rate decrease. We'll be intervening again this year with Public Service of Oklahoma's requested rate increase."

And when tornadoes struck Oklahoma last spring, the AARP Foundation was among the first to step in. "Within one week, AARP raised over $700,000. We worked with local organizations to help distribute those funds to organizations that have boots on the ground. One of those was the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. We gave them nearly $30,000 total to help Native Americans who were caught in the storms get back on their feet, get into homes or assistance with rent, clothing and food."

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