Above: On the Mescalero Apache reservation, the Elderly Program became the lifeblood of their tribe during the pandemic thanks to the work of Michaelene Ahidley and Karlene Toehay. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.

WHEN RITA BALATCHE WAS IN A HOSPITAL BED battling COVID-19, she called her husband each morning with a message: “If you need anything, call the Elderly Program. They’ll help.”

For Balatche and others on the small, tight-knit Mescalero Apache reservation, in south-central New Mexico, the Elderly Program became the lifeblood of their tribe during the pandemic. Spearheaded by longtime program director Michaelene Ahidley and head cook Karlene Toehay, it has operated for more than a year as a call center tasked with dispensing up-to-date information, coordinating drivers to bring medications to residents, and ensuring the daily delivery of hot, healthy lunches to frail, homebound elders—and anyone else who needs them.

Especially during the pandemic’s early days, fear and isolation were overwhelming. When COVID-19 first hit, tribal administrators had a response team in place but were inundated with calls from concerned residents. They quickly shifted gears to better coordinate care by transforming the Elderly Program into command central. Although everyone on staff put themselves at risk, Ahidley and Toehay often bore the brunt of it.

Many elders don’t have internet service, so being able to speak to someone at the call center and receive reliable information was critical. More important, though, was the human connection. “We are empty nesters, and we weren’t allowed to visit our kids or even allowed to leave our homes,” Balatche recalls. “Being elderly, it was our lifeline.”

Meal deliveries jumped from 100 to 250 a day during the week. Toehay and her staff cranked out lentil stew, mushroom and Swiss burgers, baked trout, tamales, and meatloaf. “When they dropped the food off, it made us feel there were people still out there,” Balatche says.

Members of other tribal departments were pulled in to help ensure none of the food, water, cleaning supplies, or other essentials donated to the reservation went unused. They tackled every problem presented by residents, from broken windows to overflowing toilets. “They always said, ‘Let me see how we can help you,’ ” says Balatche.

While none of it was easy, the first COVID-related death was especially devastating. “It really shook us all,” Ahidley says. “The elder that passed did not go anywhere, she was homebound. That’s when we said, ‘This is real.’ ”

"I just did what needed to be done. I didn’t think of anything else except getting food to our elders and community members."

—Karlene Toehay, Mescalero Apache Elderly Program

Their work came with tremendous risk. Even with every precaution, one staff member—Toehay’s son-in-law and a father of four—died from the virus, while two others contracted the disease and survived.

Ahidley, who has overseen the Elderly Program for 18 years and is one of the few remaining speakers of the tribe’s Mescalero Apache language, says the pandemic has only fueled her enthusiasm for working with the community’s oldest and most vulnerable residents.

“When there’s time to sit down and they tell me their stories,” she says, “it makes me feel really good that they trust me with their stories.”

Often the discussions turn to how much they enjoy Toehay’s meals. After working for five years in the banquet department at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino, where the chef helped hone her culinary skills, Toehay joined the Elderly Program. “I just did what needed to be done,” she says. “I didn’t think of anything else except getting food to our elders and community members.”

But for Elderly Program administrative assistant and recreation director Cynthia Prelo, it was about much more: “This group inspired others to really understand what a sense of community is.”

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