Valerie Jones, a member of the Navajo Nation, previously served as the health services administrator at Navajo Department of Health, Division of Aging and Long-Term Care Support. She currently works with the Indian Health Service as their elder health care data coordinator.
Having administered aging programs through the Navajo Department of Health to the more than 110 communities within the Navajo Nation, which is about the size of West Virginia, Jones has seen the health care needs of communities across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. “I work with IHS partners in community living and with our leadership teams across the states to create change,” she says. “Having seen how important it is to be educated about our brains and how they may change, and how Alzheimer’s and dementia affect families, I continue to work toward more educational programs to reach more people.”
One piece of this puzzle, which Valerie calls integral, is the training of new IHS Elder Health Program team members, particularly about behaviors seen with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “Everyone, regardless of where they live, should educate themselves about dementia. We started training teams in New Mexico, and now 38 centers located there have received training about the signs of dementia, the behaviors, and stages, and, importantly, the excellent resources available through the Alzheimer's Association. I am so grateful for everyone involved, and all the progress that is being made.”
Perceptions of Alzheimer's and dementia
- About two-thirds (65%) of Native Americans say that they know somebody with Alzheimer’s.
- Only 25% of Native Americans say that they are worried about developing Alzheimer's disease.
Valerie coordinates with teams across Navajo Nation to ensure that everyone has ownership of — and pride in — their local education programs. When she was working with the Navajo Department of Health, she learned of this new career opportunity to focus on data, an area she calls ‘vital.’ “We must be able to obtain data about the health of our tribes: collect it, analyze it and then use it to inform decision-making. This role completely piqued my interest, especially the ability to work on relationship building and working side-by-side with tribes.”
A Commitment to Community
There is no word for Alzheimer’s or dementia in Navajo. In their language, the idea of a person ‘changing’ equates to becoming a whole different person, and that is not necessarily true of Alzheimer’s and dementia, Valerie says. “Yes, the behaviors of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia will be different, but the essence or spirit of the individual remains.” Another gap is communication around a diagnosis. “It’s so important for physicians and nurses to connect with community members by taking extra time to explain a diagnosis. Most tribes don't have access to a neurologist or neuropsychologist, and being referred out of the area means a 3-5 hour drive. I know the hurdles, because I have seen them myself, and that is why I am committed to making a difference.”
As a member of Navajo Nation, Valerie understands the needs of her community and needs of other tribes across the country. “Coming from a lifestyle where there is no running water; or electricity, with family members self-medicating or going undiagnosed, I understand how complex social issues are in tribal communities. We value our culture, and for my family, it was a choice to live off the land. My grandfather wanted us to grow our own food, everything organic and natural. He did not want electricity or water from unfamiliar places. For many tribal members, this is a lifestyle choice. However, in modern society, technology — and the lack of it in many tribal lands, and therefore in community programs — has been a barrier. Being from Navajo Nation and knowing the language and culture, we are now working to bridge modern technology and modern ideas with traditional values.”
Valerie is proud to work under the leadership of Dr. Marcella Ronyak, director of the Division of Clinical and Community Services at the IHS. Dr. Ronyak and Dr. Bruce Finke — an IHS elder health consultant who has testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging on the impact of Alzheimer’s on tribal communities — laid the foundation of the IHS Elder Health Program.
In September 2022, the IHS announced its commitment to address Alzheimer's disease in Indian Country, with $662,176 allocated for tribal and urban Indian health systems to develop models incorporating care approaches focused on Alzheimer’s and dementia. For the first time, IHS will allocate funds for this critical need.
Today, one of every five American Indian and Alaska Native adults aged 45 and older reports experiencing subjective cognitive decline. “We must continue to engage tribal health systems and tribes in the awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and all other dementias,” Valerie says, “including the need to support all our dedicated family caregivers.”
The Alzheimer's Association and the IHS are working together to address and improve the health and well-being of American Indians and Alaska Natives living with Alzheimer's disease and all other dementias, and their caregivers. Learn more.
IHS participates in the Department of Health and Human Services' Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Disease Research, Care, and Services as part of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, in the RAISE Act Family Caregiving Advisory Council and collaborates with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Administration for Community Living and the Veterans Administration, and other federal agencies
Native Americans and Alzheimer's