Western cultures see aging through the narrow, warped lens of health and disease, chronic illness and disability. Being independent for as long as possible is highly valued. People are impressed, for example, that my 97-year-old father lived alone, shopped for his own groceries, cooked his own meals and kept up with current events.
On the other hand, Indigenous cultures take a more holistic view of aging. A 2011 study of 26 Elders aged 61 to 93 years looked at what successful aging means through the eyes of Alaska Native Elders in Southwest Alaska. Author Jordan P. Lewis found that Alaska Native Elders believe there are four characteristics to becoming a respected Elder: emotional well-being, community engagement, spirituality and physical health.
Elders had a positive attitude and took being role models seriously. They worked with youth teaching them traditional values and lifestyles while incorporating Western technology into subsistence activities. As an Inuk university student from Nunavut once said during a public presentation, Elders are the community library. They are the keepers of the language, culture, stories and traditions. They are the ones who pass them along and teach the youth. Elders are also consulted for guidance and advice.
“In Indigenous communities in Alaska, the community respects their elders,” Lewis writes, “and this is a cultural convention that distinguishes those elders who have lived traditionally and continue to serve as an integral part of their community and are viewed as role models.”
Every summer members of the community of Deline, Northwest Territories, participate in an on-the-land Knowledge Camp. Elders and youth come together to pass on traditional skills and knowledge. Elders show young women how to scrape and prepare a caribou hide, for example, and fillet and smoke fish. Young men are taught skills to hunt and fish. Having outlets for sharing their knowledge gives Elders a role in their community and a sense of purpose.
“Where I once saw wrinkles as a sign of aging, I now think of the years of wisdom their owner possesses.”
I was raised in a Western culture in Montreal, but 12 years ago I chose to make my home in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. This community of 2,300 people is a mix of Chipewyan, Cree, Métis and non-Indigenous cultures. Living in an Indigenous community has changed the conversation in my own head about aging. It’s here that I began to adopt a perspective on aging that views Elders with respect and focuses on what they are able to contribute – not what they can’t. Where I once saw wrinkles as a sign of aging, I now think of the years of wisdom their owner possesses. That, to me, is a thing of beauty.
In Indigenous communities, Elders often perform the blessing or opening ceremony at feasts and events to give thanks to the Creator and bless the event. They are also served first as a sign of respect. Recently, it was my father’s 95th birthday and my sister had arranged a lovely lunch at her house in Montreal to celebrate. My dad was surrounded by his three daughters, three sons-in-law and two nephews. We stood around the buffet table laden with a beautiful spread.
After toasting over a glass of wine, it was time to eat. I paused expectantly, waiting for my father to serve himself first. After all, he’s an Elder – and they are always served first in Indigenous communities. When I saw that other family members were helping themselves, I stopped myself from offering to fix my dad a plate to show respect – another tradition I learned in my adopted home in the North.
Honouring the wisdom and traditional knowledge that Elders possess – and finding ways to provide a place for them to share it keeps them involved and enriches their community. Perhaps the Indigenous holistic approach to aging unwittingly influenced how I responded to my mother’s deterioration from dementia. I decided to focus on what she could do – and on making new memories with her for as long as possible rather than on the illness. I refused to let the disease steal everything from us.