Lillian Thomas of Muscogee (Creek) Nation has served on the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA)’s board of directors for over three years. She was asked to join by an outgoing representative of the Eastern Oklahoma Region during NICOA’s 2016 conference in Niagara Falls.
Most of her work with Native elders has been through her job with her tribe as a Social Security representative. She’s assisted tribal members in filing for Social Security benefits, securing information and evidence for entitlement to different programs in housing, Cobell Scholarship applications, waivers on student loans, veteran’s benefits and more.
In her experience, elder advocacy is the biggest challenge facing Native elders in her community. Elders need advocates and caregivers who will transport them to doctor’s appointments, take them grocery shopping and other necessary places. She believes more funding is needed to provide for more caregivers.
“I feel that elder advocates are needed to assist elders in their everyday activities and any business that needs to be transacted,” she said. “Some elders are not physically able to take care of their everyday chores and activities, yet they are reluctant to allow someone they don’t know very well to come into their home to assist them.”
In Lillian’s tribal program, there is only one elder advocate. “Our elders have learned to trust her and do not want anyone else assisting them,” she said.
Exploitation and elder abuse by family members is also evident, she said, yet the elder is not willing to cooperate with law enforcement in resolving the problem because the abuser is a family member or a loved one.
“A lot of our elders have been neglected by families who leave them to struggle on their own. Some elders are raising their grandchildren without any financial assistance from the parents,” she said. “Our elders are not financially able to do repairs on their homes; therefore, they are forced to live in substandard homes.”
As a board member of NICOA she has secured a contribution from the Muscogee Creek tribe and intends to acquire another contribution as soon as their tribal financial situation improves. She plans to continue to find ways to secure funding for NICOA, advocate for the organization and its mission, informing others of how NICOA benefits her tribe and the tribal elders in her area.