Successful aging means sharing and teaching

Being surrounded by grandchildren and children from the community is a blessing for anyone, and especially when you are given an opportunity to share what you have learned in your life. While we are doing interviews in Elders’ homes across Alaska, we are always surrounded by children and the joy visible on the Elders’ face, in their stories, and passion for their futures and learning what it means to be a healthy Native person. This desire to share your knowledge, stories and to teach the youth, is a stage of human development we achieve in mid to later life and called “generativity,” by developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.

The concept of generativity is important in Alaska Native cultures, that is, caring for the future, or Seventh, generation and ensuring our youth have a healthy environment and future. But this outlook is in direct contrast to how mainstream Americans view life. Our western values emphasize independent achievement to the extent that people become involved in themselves and their successes and some may neglect the responsibility of caring for others. It is important to note that generativity is a personal resource given to others and is not used to eliminate the elders’ own stress and life events, but instead is used to improve the quality of your family, community and society.

The idea of generativity is grounded in Elders’ being involved in their families and teaching their grandchildren. It will be important to ensure there are other avenues in which Elders can be active in sharing their knowledge with youths to enable them to continue experiencing generativity. The ability and opportunity to share their knowledge and wisdom of living a traditional lifestyle with their family was an important aspect of aging successfully and these opportunities give Elders a sense of purpose and meaning in their family and community. When asked about who is aging successfully, an Elder shared, “Ones that like to give advice to others and help direct the right way by talking.” Another Elder shared, “As they age they like to share about awareness and acknowledge what obstacles they are facing.”

The roles Elders fill in their community also contribute to their sense of generativity. Almost every Elder we have visited discussed the importance of passing down their knowledge to the youth, and anyone of any age if they are interested in listening and learning. Communities across Alaska value their Elders and understand the importance of their wisdom and experience, providing opportunities for them to participate and educate those who were interested. It is important for our communities and families to provide opportunities for Elders to share because we are learning that when Elders do not have these opportunities, they experience poorer mental health, sometimes depression, and will stop sharing and isolate themselves.

This idea of leading and caring for the next generation, or the Seventh generation, has been documented among other minority and indigenous groups, and has a direct impact on the Elders’ sense of purpose and also builds community capacity in their family and community. This notion of feeling needed by your family and community is directly related to successful aging and impacts the Elders’ feelings of worth and optimism.

As we all grow older and gather a lifetime of stories and experiences, what do you find yourself wanting to share? Successful aging for some people is based on individual decisions and health behaviors, but this aspect of successful aging depends on family and community support and having opportunities to share with others and help them learn from your life to have a healthy and productive future. When you find yourself surrounded by your grandchildren, or other youth, what would you want to tell them? What brings you the most joy to share? When you are sharing you are helping yourself age successfully and be healthy. It is also never too late to learn from your Elders and provide them with opportunities to share their knowledge and stories. We are all learning from each other and this sharing of knowledge and experiences helps everyone age successfully in our own way.

This is the second 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.