Turning Stone Resort Casino was the site of the 17th annual Oneida Indian Nation Aging Well Elders Conference on May 25 and 26. Oneida and other American Indian Elders from all over New York State attended lectures and demonstrations that were filled with helpful tips to teach Elders and their caregivers how to live happy and healthy lives. The two-day conference, “Aging Well: Think Positive, Live Positive,” touched on many topics ranging from healthy cooking and diabetes prevention to the power of positivity and ways to improve mental health.

Kathy Willard, the Oneida Nation’s Elders Program Coordinator, welcomed everyone to Turning Stone and invited Elders up to the buffet line for a healthy continental breakfast. Elders Program Activities Leader, Tammy Patterson (Wolf Clan), along with Sheri Beglen (Wolf Clan), kicked off the event with a smudging to wash away any anxieties or negative energies in the room. Sheri recited the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address and a quick icebreaker led by Emily Tarbell (Mohawk) ensured that everyone felt comfortable with their new neighbors.

Staying active is key, said the first speaker, Dr. Benson Kelly, medical director for St. Regis Mohawk Health Services, who addressed several ways to lower anxiety and boost endorphins. Try to work on puzzles or craft projects, and limit the amount of screen time (i.e. time spent on your smart phone, television or computer) every day, he added.

“Stop wasting time on resentment and anger, too,” Kelly said as he concluded his talk. “Learn to reconcile and you’ll find yourself much happier.”

The Elders Panel consisted of Oneida Member Winona Waterman (Turtle Clan), Allen Bellinger (Onondaga), Debbie Thomas and Donna Delormier (both Mohawk). Winona discussed her battle with addiction and her eagerness to work with kids to guide them to become productive members of the community. She said she learned how to take care of herself, which helped her continue to move forward, earning her GED and becoming a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor (CASAC). Battling through addiction, diabetes and homelessness, Winona shows that hard work pays off.

“It’s important to get along with others,” she said in closing. “When they asked me to do this my initial reaction was to say ‘no,’ but I thought it was important for me to share my story.”

After a healthy lunch, Elders split into smaller groups for a pair of workshops in the afternoon session. Among the choices were a diabetes walk and talk, a how to de-clutter session and a healthy cooking demonstration.

At the walk and talk workshop, Mollie Tracy, the Oneida Nation’s new dietician and diabetes program coordinator, outlined the benefits of walking every day. Walking lowers your blood sugar, but it can also benefit the health of your heart, increase bone density and improve sleep patterns and mental health. To illustrate that point, nurses from Oneida Nation Health Services provided blood sugar tests before and after participants walked around the resort.

Tracy noted that Elders should be getting 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week, or a little over 20 minutes a day. After the 20 minute walk led by Elder Home Respite Aide Jeanne Dee Northington (Wolf Clan), the overwhelming majority of participants saw their blood sugar drop considerably.

A cooking demo by one of Turning Stone’s chefs focused on the versatility of vegetables to make salads more exciting and flavorful and other vegetable pluses. Building a salad using as many colors as possible will offer a variety of healthful benefits.

Red veggies are rich in lycopene while yellows and oranges provide potassium and vitamin C. Greens have calcium and fiber whereas blues and purples have vitamin A and lutein. Salads are an excellent way to ensure your body is getting plenty of nutrients, the chef said, inviting the Elders up to build their own salad, telling them it’s okay to throw some calories on a salad to give it flavor and protein.

Back for his second year and leading the discussion on day two, Dr. Darryl Tonemah (Kiowa/Comanche/Tuscarora) spoke about adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), its effects on adult health and the need to relinquish those anxieties as we age.

“Nothing but the hurt gets filed away and unease leads to disease,” said Tonemah, who has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology and Cultural Studies and served as a psychologist for the southwest sites of the NIH Diabetes Prevention Program study.

It’s important to be victors and not victims, Tonemah said rehashing what Dr. Kelly said to kick off the conference. Don’t let anxiety and past grudges influence daily activities and decisions, he added.

Tonemah warned that constant worrying can affect sleep patterns by reducing melatonin levels, and it is heightened with increased screen time, before further highlighting the need for more sleep. Turn off the phone, or at least put it ten feet away from your head, before bed, he suggests. The less blue light spectrum – the highest energy visible light that comes from phones, televisions and tablets – the easier it is to get restful sleep. Tonemah’s infectious positive attitude was felt by everyone in the room and he was given a long round of applause.

The second morning session had Elders split into smaller groups again. The workshops available were using positive thinking to overcome health issues with Tara Tarbell (Mohawk) and using native plants and gardening to promote positive living with Ken Parker (Seneca).

Parker, a passionate indigenous horticulturist, is a New York State Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional (CNLP) and he discussed the culinary, medicinal and spiritual uses of local native plants.

“It’s critical to change how we think about how we eat,” he said in his introduction. “Somewhere along the way we forgot how to feed ourselves.”

Locally grown herbs, spices and produce are free from harmful preservative chemicals and prevent an over-reliance on large grocery stores to provide us with healthy food, said Parker, adding that gardening is also great exercise and offers a valuable skill set for the next generation.

To conclude the conference, Elders were treated to a performance by the Kontiwennenhawi Akwesasne Women Singers who write songs that reflect the importance of the natural environment and community preservation and have taken home an award from the Native American Music Awards.

With spirited dances and songs that had many Elders participating, the Aging Well Conference ended on a high note.