It is often difficult for an older adult to leave home and move into a nursing home or assisted living facility. As Kay Branch discovered, it was even more challenging for Alaska Native elders who were being moved from their communities into places that had no understanding of their culture, traditions, language, or food.

“Elders fear separation from family, friends, and their communities, in part because they lose the ability to pass down cultural traditions to young people and maintain the traditional way of life,” said Branch, who directs the statewide Elder Care Program for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), a not‐for‐profit health organization. The ANTHC, managed by Alaska Native tribal governments and their regional health organizations, provides statewide services in medical care, construction of facilities for water and sanitation, community health and research, information technology, and professional recruiting.

“State regulations can make it more difficult for Alaska Native people to provide services to each other in their communities. We’re working to change that,” Branch said.

Branch’s goal is to help elders stay close to home in independent, healthy, and safe environments. When that is not possible, the program strives to develop culturally appropriate care in other settings. Branch is credited with helping to change state policies to allow tribal elders to stay in their communities and to be cared for by other Alaska Native people. She has also been instrumental in the development of a tribal long-term care facility in Kotzebue that enables elders who are housed in Anchorage or Fairbanks to be “back home.”

For her creativity and commitment to ensuring that Alaska Native elders can age with dignity, Branch has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award for 2012. The award honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities. Branch will receive the award during a ceremony in San Antonio on October 17.

There are about 9,500 Alaska Natives 65 years or older in the state. These elders primarily live in small, remote villages reached only by air or boat. These communities have moved from an agricultural to a cash-based economy, forcing more Alaska Native people to work outside the home. This makes it more difficult for families to take care of their elders, as they did in the past.

“The health disparities Alaska Native people face are enormous, and the rural landscape makes providing care all the more challenging,” said Branch. “Getting an elder assessed by a state worker, for example, can take months, because some of these people live out in the middle of nowhere.” Another challenge is retaining home-care aides who are relatives of the elders they care for. As Branch explained, “When an elder passes away, bereavement is more difficult when the care provider is a relative. Then we, the agency, can’t just say, ‘Here’s another client for you.’ It’s more complicated.”

Janice Ford Griffin, national program director of Community Health Leaders, said the selection committee honored Branch for her tireless commitment to ensuring that Alaska Native elders can receive culturally appropriate care. “Kay’s leadership has been enormously effective in achieving the completion of the statewide elder needs assessment, the development of the comprehensive statewide long-term care plan for the Alaska Tribal Health System, and the formation of an Elder Advisory Committee to assure consumer input,” Griffin said.

While Branch did not grow up in Alaska—she moved to Anchorage from Florida—she has embraced the Alaska Native lifestyle. She recalled visiting an elder who served moose nose while boiling down the head to make cheese. “Fish heads, moose, beaver tail are all traditional tribal health foods,” she said. Branch has organized efforts to serve tribal food to Alaska Natives in nursing homes, set up a Christmas adopt-an-elder program, and assembled groups of volunteers to visit elders and listen to their stories.

Valerie Davidson, senior director for legal and intergovernmental affairs at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, said, “Kay is well known throughout Alaska as the ‘go to’ resource for support for elders. She uses her professional and personal connections to identify and openly share resources with health care teams struggling to meet the changing needs of elders. Each quarter, she holds a meeting with her Alaska Native Elder Advisory Committee members from across the state. Their opinion is important to her as she presents new program ideas and talks about unmet needs. Knowing their love for traditional foods, Kay usually goes to her home freezer for salmon or moose to make a stew or soup for their meal.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 200 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The work of the nine other 2012 recipients includes a community initiative to reduce opioid abuse and drug overdoses in Wilkes County, N.C.; a program to prevent and treat cancer among medically underserved populations in South Carolina’s Low Country region; an initiative to connect refugees to mental health services in Seattle; a free health care clinic for the working poor in Little Rock, Ark.; a cancer awareness and treatment program for African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area; support services for Latino survivors of sexual violence in Philadelphia; a project to promote healthy lifestyles and safe working conditions for immigrant workers in Los Angeles; an initiative to prevent childhood obesity in Garfield, N.J., and an outreach program to assist older adults living at home in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

For details on how to submit a nomination, including eligibility requirements and selection criteria, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.

Kay Branch, MA

Kay Branch, MA

Elder/Rural Health Program Coordinator, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Anchorage, Alaska