Elders' perspective on how to age successfully

This is the first in a series of articles by Jordan Lewis, PhD, with comments and reflections on “Alaska Native Successful Aging - What it means to be an Elder,” which are two studies completed in 2009 and 2019. Jordan is an Associate Professor with the WWAMI School of Medical Education, University of Alaska Anchorage, and Director of the National Resource Center for Alaska Native Elders at University of Alaska Anchorage.

A huge smile across Mary’s (not her real name) face, the deep wrinkles show she has lived a full and healthy life. That hearty laugh comes from deep within her soul, eyes twinkling, smoked fish and napkin in her hands, the old stove putting off lots of heat, grandchildren laughing in the background, family heirlooms filling the house, her spouse listening intently and waiting to butt in, and the house smelling like dinner is nearly finished cooking.

We are sitting at the kitchen table covered by a red and white-checkered tablecloth, butter and Tang on the table between boxes of tea. I am drinking a cup of tea, peeling smoked fish from the skin, and eagerly awaiting the next story of life as an Elder and their wisdom they wish to share to help all of us age in a good way. In our travels to visit with Elders there is always a hearty laugh when we let them know they were nominated as an Elder. They do not believe they have achieved this status, either because there is someone else in the community more fitting of this status, or they feel they will never be an Elder because they are still learning and will not stop.

From my upbringing in Naknek, and confirmed by our research, we know that Alaska Natives view aging from a holistic perspective, an approach not typically discussed or honored in our health care systems or approaches to aging studies. We have also learned that achieving Eldership, or Elder status, is not determined by reaching a certain age (e.g., 65 years), but instead is designated when an individual has demonstrated wisdom because of the experiences he or she has gained throughout life, which steers away from the Western definition of a chronological number.

As we have continued this research across various regions of Alaska, our understanding of successful aging, or Eldership, is also expanding. Our most recent work has expanded to five core elements of successful aging, four of which formed Lewis’s Alaska Native model of successful aging (2011): Mental and emotional wellbeing, spirituality, having a sense of purpose, and physical health and mobility. We have added the new fifth element, Gerotranscendence.

Our research has found that perseverance, sharing with others, and family are included in mental and emotional wellbeing. Involvement with a church and a strong connection to land and place are central to spirituality. Elders are purposeful in their daily activities, passing on traditional knowledge and engaging with the community. Elders acknowledge personal limitations and adapt to physical changes, encompassed in physical health and mobility.

The unique finding of this study that expands our model of Eldership is the change in mindset Elders experience as they self-reflected. Elders described being more intentional in their relationships and a stronger connection to traditional cultural and spiritual activities, described by Tornstam (2005) as gerotranscendence. Gero - “old” transcendence - “rising above.” This the stage where Elders recreate themselves with wisdom accrued through life and experience an increase in life satisfaction; rising above old age.

As we think about these five elements of “aging good” and the mindset Alaska Natives have around Eldership, what things are important to you as you “age good?” In between Mary’s smiles and laughs, she asks you the question: Do you have the 5 elements of Eldership in your life? These characteristics that have enabled Elders to “age good” in times of rapid sociocultural changes, and overcome adversity – what lessons do you take away from the visit with these Elders? As you reflect on your journey, what would tell others to do to “age good?”

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