FARMINGTON — Laughter spilled from an exhibition room Wednesday at the Farmington Civic Center as dozens of Navajo elders reacted to a humorous presentation on nutrition.

It was a sound that can be uncommon among elders, many of whom live in isolation in the deep parts of the 27,000-square-mile reservation. The nutrition presentation was one of many geared toward the Navajo Nation's elderly population during a three-day conference that concluded Wednesday.

"Some of the elders live out there with just sheep," said Herb Long, who acted as emcee for the conference. "It's good to hear them laugh."

The purpose of the conference, which drew about 350 elders from across the Nation, was threefold.

Organizers wanted to educate elders on issues they face on a daily basis, such as health, finances, abuse and legal concerns. They also wanted to allow elderly residents to connect, and laugh, with others.

"We want them to meet each other, to get reacquainted," said Laverne Wyaco, department manager for the agency. "They love to participate in things like this. We had a talent show, a fashion show. Give them a microphone and they'll talk for days."

The main reason organizers hosted the conference, however, was to solicit input from elders about a proposed initiative that would elevate the Navajo Area Agency on Aging, a subsidiary of the Navajo Division of Health, to its own division, complete with staff, resources and funding.

The Area Agency on Aging oversees elders living on the Navajo Nation, but services are limited, Wyaco said.

"We mainly do meals, some respite, the foster grandparent program," she said. "We need to make it bigger. Elders are getting older and we need to offer better services."

According to the 2000 census, more than 41,000 men and women age 45 and older lived on the Navajo Nation. Projections estimate that number to climb to about 70,000 by 2020.

Additionally, a 2006 survey found that 40 percent of Navajo age 55 and older have diabetes, 34 percent eat fewer than twice per day and 37 percent eat alone.

"We want the quality of care for elders to go up," Wyaco said.

If bumped up to a division, the Area Agency on Aging would be able to expand services to keep up with the aging population, said Ernie Yazzie, planner for the agency. A survey of conference participants indicated elders want assistance with housing repair and remodeling and transportation to and from medical appointments.

They also asked for better resources from local chapters, Yazzie said. A separate division for aging would allow staff to disburse resources to chapters and to the elders.

"We would basically focus on the elderly a lot more," he said. "We would expand services to be more comprehensive."

Added services could include adult day care facilities, long-term care options and a separate department within the division to oversee improvements to homes.

Extra emphasis also could be placed on in-home care, Wyaco said. The agency's mission is to keep elders in their homes for as long as possible.

The agency hosted five hearings about the proposal and collected assessments from about 500 elders, Yazzie said. The last piece of the plan was this week's conference in Farmington.

Proponents will analyze the data collected and present an official proposal to the Navajo Tribal Council, which must OK the initiative before a division is formed.

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com