Winslow Campus of Care is home to 120 long term care residents and employs 150 staff members in Winslow, Ariz. The rural community borders the Navajo Nation, which lies chiefly in Arizona but ranges into Utah and New Mexico. Ninety-five percent of the residents and 50 percent of the staff are Navajo. While Winslow Campus recognizes many diverse religions, the most compelling is that of the traditional Navajo elder. As the customs and beliefs of the Navajo People are sacred to the residents (who are referred to as cherished shima’, which is Navajo for grandparents), staff take great care to honor them and their spiritual beliefs. For example, the physical décor of the center and the meals are intentionally designed to complement the Navajo culture and traditions.
“That was the easy part,” says Barbara Brown, owner and administrator at Winslow Campus of Care for the past 13 years. The hard part, she says, was learning the customs and traditions and weaving those into everyday care, interactions, and operations.
“Learning the customs and traditions of our resident family was much more exciting and enriched all of our lives,” she says. Getting started was tough since staff were initially reluctant to share sacred beliefs and common customs, says Brown. Today, they do so with great respect and humor. “We’ve learned to ask frequent questions in an effort to more fully respect and honor the ways of our elders,” she says.

A Blended Approach to Care

The spiritual needs of residents are treated with much respect and dignity by Winslow staff. To honor the ways of the elders in medicine, Winslow applies a blended approach. The center’s medical director has studied the Navajo culture extensively and has found a delicate balance between traditional beliefs and modern medicine, which often includes an order for a consultation of a traditional Medicine Man, a highly respected and revered figure in Navajo culture.
Barbara Brown
While the medical director does not write orders for the Medicine Man, she does make recommendations. “A resident might tell her, ‘I’m not sure about what you just told me, I want to speak to the Medicine Man,’ and she would absolutely encourage them,” says Brown. “They work amazingly well together.”

A visit from the Medicine Man may include a ceremony of prayer using herbs and chants specifically for the individual. Considered a transitional practitioner, he comes to the facility routinely to visit residents, who view him as a holy man. He is employed at the local Indian health office. One of the highlights of his visit is his teaching, says Brown. “I liken it to going to church,” she says. “He comes on a regular basis to meet with residents in a group setting or individuals, and it’s a lot like learning from a pastor.”

One of the beautiful things about working in the blended model, says Brown, is the individual attention given to each resident.

“No matter what the request, if he is coming to visit you as a resident, he will sit with you, talk with you, and focus on what you’ve asked him,” she says. He brings a toolbox containing sacred objects like sage and feathers, all focused on teaching and healing, she says.

A Spiritual Community

Brown says the presence of the Medicine Man has gone a long way to make residents and staff feel connected. 

The surrounding reservation is immense. Navajo individuals outside the center usually have to make a trip to see a Medicine Man, and it may not be frequent. “Here, the elders are more connected,” she says. “They have a leader, structure, and a consistent opportunity to learn and worship.” 

It’s in this environment of learning and sharing where Winslow’s resident council meets and makes requests for spiritual services. These requests can include a cleansing ceremony for the center or for a room of a former resident who has passed, which is considered a private matter. “The council is very active and vocal,” she says. “A lot of the things that you may find religious or spiritual actually come through the resident council.”

During a particularly violent storm, the center was struck by lightning. There was minimal physical damage so it came as quite a surprise to Brown when the resident council submitted a request for a Medicine Man to perform a ceremony for the building. “I quickly learned that lightning is considered to be a dangerous spiritual energy that can harm both your body and soul,” says Brown. “And that cleansing their home with a ceremony is the Navajo way of protecting their home and their spirits.”

Honoring Spiritual Beliefs

If a resident has passed, Winslow staff will keep their room empty for four days, honoring a Navajo sacred tradition. These accommodations for four days with a waiting list can be a real challenge, says Brown, but it means the world to the staff and residents. “Everyone understands that we get it,” she says. “And that’s huge.”

The recent solar eclipse was a tremendous opportunity for the center to learn and honor traditional customs. Several weeks prior to the eclipse, the activity director educated the entire staff on basic eclipse protocols. There are dozens of customs, including not eating, leaving your hair unbraided, and not drinking any fluids during an eclipse. 

The learning curve has been steep. “The Navajo people are very proud and very discreet,” says Brown. “If you make a cultural mistake, they won’t confront you about it, but with that relationship that you’ve built over the years, they will point it out.” What the residents have taught her, she says, is to ask before doing something new. So, she asks: “Am I on the right path? What do you think about this? 

“I’ve learned to not assume anything and allow them to educate me, and we’ve created an environment of trust so that everyone can share,” she says. “The elders have a wealth of knowledge. To respect and honor them is our wish.”