EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - More than 120 tribal elders turned out to explore their benefit options during Community Assistance Day at the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte School gymnasium.
Several organizations from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and state and federal agencies provided information for seniors and the tribe's neediest residents during the Aug. 1 event.
The tribe has identified nearly 450 tribal members who need assistance, said Mona Thompson, who helped organize the event.
Nearly 68 percent of the residents on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation struggle daily below the poverty level and nearly 47 percent between the ages of 45 to 65 have diabetes.
Thomson, an assistant finance officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Telephone Authority, said many of the elderly who attended the event were seeking benefits for the first time.
Thompson noted many still don't have access to a phone. Nationally, 75 percent of elders living on reservations don't have a phone and 30 percent don't have access to vehicles.
The tribe's telephone authority has joined the nation's telephone companies to provide a "Lifeline" program with phones for the elderly and needy tribal members. The tribe pays for phone installation and monthly bills are reduced to $1 per month. The reduced charge for local telephone service permits elders and the needy to call for assistance, she said.
Recognizing barriers that prevent access and understanding a maze of paper work, Thompson and representatives from health, energy assistance, social services and social security programs helped tribal members determine if they qualified for the programs.
Marcella Gilbert of Swift Bird brought her grandmother Faith Traversie of Eagle Butte to the event.
Traversie, an 83-year-old widow, said it was the first time she had looked into benefits. She lives alone at an apartment complex for the elderly on the reservation.
Unlike many tribal seniors, Traversie said she receives her husband's federal pension, but she looked into claiming social security benefits to help make ends meet.
Traversie said she receives a little less than $1,200 a month, but her rent is based on her income and by the time she pays her rent much of her money is spent.
"Every time I get a raise, they get a raise," she said.
Gilbert said while she was helping her grandmother check on Social Security and Medicare, early indications were that Traversie won't receive Social Security because her income is too great.
Bill Anderson, program consultant for Economic Security and who works for AARP, assisted Gilbert and her grandmother with some paper work for information on the programs.
Anderson, who works in the Washington, D.C., AARP office, said it was his first visit to the reservation. He and State Director Deb Fleming traveled across the state as part of an outreach program showcasing services of the nation's largest lobbying group for seniors.
Fleming said AARP is setting up its first office in the state. The organization, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, later took its acronym for a name because so many of its members were in the workforce after retirement.
She added they were traveling throughout the state to give people greater awareness of AARP's services and the new office in Sioux Falls. While it wasn't a membership drive, Fleming said many tribal members expressed an interest in the organization.
What was striking was the number of seniors who were accompanied by family members, she said. "Families are concerned about their older relatives."
As baby boomers age, Fleming said they are looking for services for their parents.
"Sometimes they really need an advocate to help get through the maze."
Long-term care was the concern of many family members who accompanied seniors and other area AARP representatives talked to seniors about programs available to grandparents raising their grandchildren.
The State Health Information and Health Insurance representatives were available to talk to people about Medicare benefits. Medicare Savings Programs can help recipients save as much as $600 or more per year, they said.