**This post was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and may discuss in-person events that are not currently taking place. For more information on Dementia Friendly Nevada’s response to COVID-19, please read our update here.**
About an hour’s drive west of Las Vegas sits the rural town of Pahrump, which translated from its Native roots mean “water from rock.” With extensive roots in indigenous history, the town is now predominantly white with an aging populous. In fact, Nye County is the oldest and largest county in the state of Nevada.
Jan Lindsay and Barbara Payne, both full-time volunteers in their ‘retirement’, joined Dementia Friendly Pahrump in 2017 when it became one of two Community Action Groups in southern Nevada focused on become more respectful, educated, supportive, and inclusive of people living with dementia and their family care partners.
Both women have backgrounds in aging services — Jan as a field representative for Nevada Rural Counties RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program), and Barbara as the volunteer facilitator for the local Alzheimer’s Association support group. Barbara previously attended the same group when her husband, now deceased, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011.
So when Jan asked Barbara to join her for the 400-mile trek north to Pyramid Lake to attend the landmark 2019 Nevada Tribal Summit on Brain Health and Dementia, Barbara was all in. A road trip was the ideal break both women needed.
It was also a perfect fit. Jan no longer flew, and Barbara had a new car she wanted to break in. With her history of riding motorcycles and driving pilot cars for oversized truck loads, Barbara had always enjoyed watching the road unfurl beneath her wheels. Jan took charge of lodging and logistics. And somewhere in the back of their minds the two envisioned a modern day Thelma and Louise adventure.
Most important, both women were intrigued with the summit that lay ahead: a gathering of tribal members from across the state with a focus on discussing the topics of brain health and dementia within a Native context.
Jan is part Native American and has spent many hours in sweat lodges. She has also studied with the late Native American activist, author, and writer Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement.
As the trip began, the two talked about their families, work, aging, and dementia, sharing both stories and sorrows.
Barbara discussed her complaints with the healthcare system, including the doctor who once told her during an appointment “Hurry up, you only have two more minutes!” Jan described the local powwow she recently attended and the difficulty she has faced in being accepted as a part of the Native community when she does not outwardly look Native.
Once the two adventurers arrived at the summit, which was hosted by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Pesa Sooname Advisory Group (part of Dementia Friendly Nevada, and called Pesa Sooname for “good think”), Jan suddenly felt at home, reconnecting with her Cree roots in Canada.
Her favorite experience during the daylong event? The people.
“There’s a gentleness in Native towns I don’t find in many communities,” she says. In particular, she enjoyed the opening and closing traditional songs. “It just felt very comfortable.”
Barbara had an equally transcendent experience, although from a non- Native perspective — perhaps because as a child her father was a Boy Scout executive and had instilled in her a deep respect for Native customs and cultures.
Barbara especially loved that the event centered on elders, with each speaker referencing the importance of elders in Native communities. She recalls being recruited for lunch service: “Get some gloves and make a plate and serve it to the elders,” she was instructed.
The summit opened Barbara’s eyes to the true need for eldership.
“Respecting what an elder is, is something that really should be instilled in our population,” she says. “There’s such a wealth of information in the elder population that gets ignored. And that’s a shame.”
Barbara recalls in particular the poetic description of brain health offered by one of the summit speakers.
“Your heart is like the start of a free flowing river,” she says. “Veins and arteries that take blood away from and to the heart are like mini connected small streams that flow all through the body including the brain, feeding it with oxygen and energy. You have to work to keep the streams flowing through your body from becoming clogged, and the heart from being hurt.”
The return drive was more challenging than the trip north because the two women fought for rooms with travelers returning from the famed Burning Man festival. Still, they talked extensively and animatedly about all the new information they had learned, including the importance of elders in Native culture, and their sadness at the lack of respect for elders in mainstream society.
Did the two women think of Thelma and Louise during their trip?
Jan loved the film, especially that two women had the courage to “get out there and do what they wanted to do.” Barbara most remembers the moment that the two women threw their arms in the air and screamed in joy.
Yet the most important part of their adventure was learning more about aging, dementia, brain health, and one another.
“I got to know her a whole lot better,” says Barbara.
Barbara was so moved by the experience — especially the respect for Native elders — that when she returned to southern Nevada and gave a report on the summit to Dementia Friendly Southern Nevada Urban (another Dementia Friendly Nevada Community Action Group), she began with the Northern Paiute phrase for good day: “Pesa Tabeno.”