A common criticism of U.S. society is that we have lost respect for our elders. Asian and Native American cultures are often pointed to as examples where older people are revered for their life experiences. As a part of 90.3's series examining Aging in America, David C. Barnett recently visited a Seminole reservation in southern Florida, where cultural traditions are losing a struggle with modern realities.
DCB- Alice Sweat is making her rounds. She's supervisor of community care for the elderly on the Brighton reservation. She drives up to the home of Lena who is under the care of Rosemary, a home service provider. Rosemary visits regularly to clean house, prepare meals and generally keep tabs on Lena who is homebound.
Alice Sweat walks up the driveway to the simple, single-level home, past a handmade wooden structure in the yard called a "chickee". Imagine a shed without walls, about the size of a carport, consisting of four poles supporting a thatched roof. The Seminoles used to use chickees as places to live and sleep under, until the introduction of more modern housing on the reservation.
Inside the small, comfortably cluttered home, Lena sits at a dinette table where Rosemary is laying out her lunch. Alice steps around Lena's walker, leaning down to ask her age.
Alice Sweat- [to Rosemary] She says she doesn't know and she's asking you "how old do they say that I am?"
Rosemary- Well, they said she's 86, but they have also said that she's more like 90. So, I'm not real sure.
DCB- Lena starts her meal as Rosemary tidies up. Keeping the house clean and eating regular meals are things that Lena couldn't possibly do without the home caregiver service.
DCB- For those who are more mobile, the Brighton Reservation's senior center offers regular meals and various other social activities. The serving of senior meals started out as a program to ensure good nutrition for elders who were living alone in isolated houses on the reservation. But soon it became apparent that the center was serving other functions
Leah Minnich- A lot of them do come in so that they can visit with each other. They do sit around and talk. They like to sit on that bench outside....and talk about different things, but mostly about community, I'm sure. We never listen in on them. Maybe a lot of it might be gossip, I don't know.
DCB- Leah Minnich oversees the Senior food sites at three Seminole reservations, including Brighton,Big Cyprus and Hollywood. While it's true that these centers allow seniors to socialize, that doesn't mean that they are all living alone at home. Leah Minnich says reservations are experiencing a housing shortage, prompting some sons and daughters to move back in with their parents
LM- ...We don't have enough housing to go around for the younger generation that's coming up. They have a long waiting list for houses to be built. So, they have to have a place to stay. Some are going out and buying trailers, but trailers don't last very long - everybody wants to have a house.
DCB- In some cases, this forced close-quarters creates family tensions. Minnich says it's contributing to the loss of a key ingredient in Native American cultures - respect for elders. Community care supervisor Alice Sweat nods her head in agreement.
AS- Especially when we go into the homes and the adult children of the elderly are not contributing to helping the elder. I mean, they depend on the people from the clinic, people from my staff, to do for the elder.....while the adult child is there.
LM- I don't know if we are to blame, because the younger generation is not being taught to respect the elders. Are we raising a generation that doesn't care about anything? I don't know.
DCB- It's approaching noon and the lunchtime crowd is slowly starting to arrive, gathering in small groups at the long rows of tables. The seniors are sharing stories... and gossip. Talking about their children. Talking about their ailments. Lotte says sometimes she goes to the local health clinic for help, but more often, she puts her faith in the natural cures available from medicine men, such as her uncle.
Lotte- There's lots of things that my uncle taught me - how you can get some herbs from the yard that's got little beans in it. And you mash it down and boil it until it looks like tea - and that'll cure the high blood pressure. But now, we can't find those plants on the reservation anymore and I can't do it except take the white man's pills.
DCB- As small luncheon trays of traditional foods are passed out, the group starts singing a Baptist hymn that has been adapted to the Creek language. It represents the cultural mingling that's part of the reality of Seminole life today - the prayer of a religion brought to them by white missionaries many years ago, sung in a traditional language that may disappear after another generation. For now, it's a spiritual salve, brewed from meaningful parts of their past. For INFOHIO, I'm David C. Barnett reporting from the Brighton Seminole reservation outside of Okeechobee Florida.