Coming Home, Building Community

Aiding elders on a Native American reservation

June 1, 2017

In her position as tribal aide to elders, Judi Bridge helps the senior citizens of Winnebago, Nebraska, make the most of the library.
In her position as tribal aide to elders, Judi Bridge helps the senior citizens of Winnebago, Nebraska, make the most of the library.

The Winnebago Reservation in northeastern Nebraska lies about 20 miles from the nearest drugstore. Long on farmland and short on commercial services, this rural area is a place where it’s easy for people who are elderly, homebound, or both to become isolated. Seven years ago, though, the local community college and public library created the position of tribal aide to elders. And the woman who fills it does her best to keep the community connected.

Judi Bridge’s hometown didn’t feel entirely like home anymore.

After several decades of life elsewhere, she had returned to the village of Winnebago, Nebraska (population 787) in 2009, searching for a quieter, more rural lifestyle. She’d even gotten a job at the local Little Priest Tribal College and Winnebago Public Library, working as an aide to senior citizens of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. (The village is located within the tribal reservation.) But after so much time away, she didn’t feel completely embraced by the community.

That is, until a library patron suggested that when you’re trying to find your place in any small, close-knit settlement, a useful strategy is to tell people who your parents and grandparents are. It worked like a charm. “They’ll [now] say, ‘Oh, okay, okay,’ and then they accept me,” Bridge says.

Good thing, as Bridge’s job entails constant connection. As tribal aide to elders (her official title), she delivers library books, gives rides to and from the library, teaches basic computer skills, facilitates a book club, provides accessibility devices, and does whatever else she can to make sure that the senior and disabled citizens of the Winnebago Reservation get the most out of their library.

Bridge is the first to hold the tribal aide to elders position, which was originally funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services Enhancement Grant. These grants offer $10,000–$150,000 to enhance existing library services or implement new library services among Indian tribes, Alaska native villages, regional corporations, and village corporations. In light of the position’s success, the Little Priest Tribal College stepped in to supply funding after the grant ran out in 2012.

A typical day for Bridge might begin by checking to see if any patrons are in danger of incurring fees for overdue materials and asking those patrons if they’d like to renew. “I can do that [renewal] so that they don’t accumulate a fine, because a lot of them are on a budget,” she says. She might also suggest certain books or DVDs to particular patrons, based on her knowledge of their interests.

Next she might sit down with a senior for a tutorial in basic computer skills. “There was a gentleman who came from 20 miles away twice a week,” she marvels. “He just wanted to learn as much as he could and as much as I could teach him.” The remainder of the day might see her making home visits to drop off or pick up materials, leading a book club discussion, attending a funeral, or stopping by the local senior center to refresh the items she leaves on a library cart there for checkout. She’s noticed, by the way, that many seniors initially visit the cart only, but then get curious about what other items are available and start going to the library as well.

Bridge also oversees the library’s accessibility devices, which include handheld video magnifiers. “One lady said she wanted to use it to read her Bible all the way through,” she says. “Another lady was a baker, and she’d use it for recipes. I just reassure them that these devices are there for them.” The library also has large-print books, CD players, and portable DVD players for loan. Additionally, it’s not unusual for Bridge to go above and beyond for a patron, as when she recently helped one resident who has a physical disability research home internet service providers, accessible vehicles, and suitable wheelchairs.

To librarians in other Native American communities, Bridge recommends building on tribal oral traditions by expanding the selection of audiovisual materials available. At her library, the DVD collection, about 20% of which is made up of titles of Native interest, now accounts for more than half of all circulated materials.

Another suggestion: encouraging intergenerational interaction. As younger patrons see more older adults read for pleasure as well as information, they learn the value of reading themselves. And having elders present storytelling programs during children’s summer reading programs, as Bridge’s library does, helps strengthen a sense of intergenerational community.

Given that nearly 13% of the reservation’s residents are over age 55, one-third of those over 55 are homebound, and there is no public transportation, Bridge’s efforts are sorely needed.

“There are a lot of diabetic people here, and some are at home, and some can’t get out unless they’re in a wheelchair,” she says. “They sure appreciate someone coming to see them. I believe there’s a great need for this.” And a great result from it: In the first two years of her service, circulation to older adults went from nearly zero to 27%.