A society is ultimately judged by how well it treats its Elders. The Oneida Indian Nation has taken extraordinary steps to provide its Elders with the best possible care and activities.

The Oneida Nation Elders Program, based in the Elders wing of the Ray Elm Children & Elders Center, is designed to keep American Indian Elders active both mentally and physically. Originally housed in the old Cookhouse on Territory Road, the program at the center has greatly expanded since moving to its current location in 1999. The center’s staff works tirelessly to provide Elders with a number of fun programs, clubs and activities to participate in on a regular basis.

Activities Leader Tammy Patterson (Wolf Clan) believes connecting Elders with the community is an integral part of the Nation’s mission. “In all Native societies, Elders are held with a lot of respect and are taken care of,” she says. “That’s what we do here. We want to keep their mind going and keep them busy.”

The center takes inquiries and tries to entice new participants regularly. The group is always growing, which is something the staff takes great pride in, and recruiting newcomers is the best way to inform more people about what the center offers.

Among the most popular services offered is the free daily lunch that is available Monday through Friday at the center’s dining hall. Charisse Gibson (Wolf Clan), an Elder herself, is the Lead Cook at the Elders Center and her team prepares all of the meals from scratch.

“All of the meals are homemade,” she says. “I make the menus and send them to our nutritionist who will make suggestions and adjust as needed. Keeping an eye on diabetes is huge so we want to make sure we’re giving them healthy options.”

The center serves approximately 60 meals each day and Charisse offers a variety of options each week so the Elders don’t become bored. “They’re always giving us compliments,” she says. “I hear ‘Meals were great’ and ‘Hat’s off to the chef’ all the time so that makes me feel good when I go home.”

Program Coordinator Kathy Willard says the center has around 45 Elders that participate regularly, but many more stop in from time to time. “We’re always trying something new and different to get people in,” she says. “It’s great for them to get out of the house every day. They can come up here and have lunch, do the crafts and socialize.”

The center is conveniently located and within easy walking distance of the Elders’ housing in the Village of the White Pines in Oneida. Elders can enjoy a variety of arts, crafts and special activities throughout the week. Currently, classes are available in crocheting, quilting, sewing, beading, wire wrapping, oil painting and ceramics. A travelling photography club is also popular.

Luanne Pierce (Turtle Clan) is a regular participant and enjoys a lot of the activities. “I go to ceramics, bingo and I love coming for lunch,” she says. “I’m also in the walking group. We get points for every fifteen minutes we walk so that helps keep me going.”

Mary Blau (Turtle Clan) also comes up to the center during her lunch break at the Language Department. “I come up to the center to work with the kids in the morning and I walk over here for lunch,” she says. “It’s great to catch up with friends and socialize for an hour.”

The Elders Center is making a stronger push to get more men to participate as well. Last Father’s Day, Elders were able to go fishing on Oneida Lake; a first for the program. Tammy hopes to continue the fishing expeditions and bring more Elders to the golf courses when the weather is warmer.

Several excursions to local areas of interest and longer trips to places like New York City, Boston and Atlantic City remain very popular. Elders also continually participate with the youth in intergenerational activities like bingo and the annual egg hunt, and donate goods to local charitable organizations like Wanderer’s Rest in Canastota.

Work continues to be done to provide Elders with the best experience possible. In addition to the classes and activities, Elders can schedule hair appointments and massages, and stay in shape in their own exercise room that’s equipped with stationary bikes, treadmills and a pool table.

“For me personally it’s about keeping them safe and providing them something to do,” Tammy says. That is the heart of the Elders Center mission. Kathy and Charisse also enjoy working with the Elders directly and hearing stories about their experiences and culture.

Elders program participant, Barb Montalbano (Mohawk) visits the center almost every day. “I enjoy the company,” she says. “Since everyone comes so often we can check on each other. It’s just a great program.”

The Elders Program is open to all American Indians age 55 and older. For more information or to enroll in the program, contact Kathy Willard at (315) 829-8133 or 1-800-685-6115.