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CNN Heroes: Helping Navajo elders through the pandemic
04:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Before Covid-19 hit, elders living on the Navajo Nation were already among the most vulnerable.

As the virus spread, their situation became even more dire.

On the Navajo Nation, spanning more than 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, an estimated 30% of residents don’t have access to running water, making early hand washing guidance impossible to adhere to.

Many other factors put them at greater risk: a lack of resources, information and access to masks and medical care on top of poor infrastructure and insufficient housing conditions.

At one point, the Navajo Nation experienced Covid-19 infection rates that were among the highest per capita in the United States. While the number of new cases has been trending downward, Navajo elders are still dying at alarming rates.

“There are many, many elderly people on the reservation that are homebound and alone,” said CNN Hero Linda Myers, whose non-profit provides lifesaving supplies for Native American elders. “Some of our elders live 60 miles from a grocery store. Many of them are traditional and don’t have running water or electricity.”

To date, the Navajo Nation has reported nearly 9,000 positive cases of Covid-19 and 453 deaths. More than 60% of the deceased were age 60 and older.

Linda Myers' team has ramped up efforts to bring lifesaving help to Navajo elders during the pandemic.

Myers has spent decades supporting Navajo elders through her non-profit, Adopt-A-Native-Elder – which currently serves more than 750 people ages 75-105. She says 26 elders in her program have died. And the pandemic has only increased the elders’ isolation and fear.

“We have … families with the virus at different hospitals (across the reservation),” Myers said. “One of our elders lost her son, her daughter, her sister and her sister’s daughter.”

Losing Navajo elders is devastating, Myers says, not just to families and loved ones, but for Navajo history.

“They hold the life for their families. They carry on the traditions, the ceremony, the language, the weaving. All the things come from these elders’ teachings,” she said. “It’s a piece of history, a piece of culture.”

Myers, who lives in Salt Lake City and makes trips to the reservation several times a year, is working with donors and partners on the ground to deliver food, masks and other supplies to the elders during the pandemic.

“When the virus hit, we quickly turned everything into food certificates, knowing special diets, knowing special medical needs,” she said. “We have sent $225,000 worth of food certificates to our elders to help them sustain themselves, to allow them to get the right kind of foods, the fresh foods, the fresh meat, so that they’re not just relying on canned food items.”

The Navajo Nation has implemented some of the country’s most extensive lockdown orders, including curfews, closures and other restrictions. But the new rules also pose a new set of challenges for those in remote areas.

“Our elders … have to go sometimes 18 miles to pick up their water. They wait in long lines. They have to haul their water barrels,” Myers said. “With the trading post closed, they have very little access to the kinds of things that are traditional things for Navajo people.”

To that end, Adopt-A-Native-Elder has also ramped up efforts to send yarn to elders who support themselves through weaving.

Marie Nez weaves a rug in her home on Navajo Nation.

“While they’re in lockdown, they’ve been able to weave. They send us the rugs. We list them on our website for sale. So we’re helping them still sustain themselves in their traditional way,” Myers said.

All proceeds from the sale of the rug go directly to the weaver.

The organization is also working ahead to get truckloads of firewood delivered to all of its elders in time for winter, when temperatures on the reservation can dip below zero.

“Firewood – six or seven loads of firewood – makes a huge difference in keeping the elders warm all day and all night,” Myers said.

Myers, who has known these elders and their families for more than 35 years, says her work is ongoing and she’s inspired by supporters coming together in a time of crisis.

“I like to focus, too, on the good and positive that I see. The biggest thing is that people have stepped up. It’s brought more people to awareness,” she said. “It’s really made a difference.”

Want to get involved? Check out the Adopt-A-Native-Elder website and see how to help.