By Jordan Lewis
For Senior Voice 

Successful aging and community engagement


August 1, 2019

The school classroom is filled with children eager to hear stories from Marge, who is volunteering in the classroom. Marge speaks fluent Yup’ik and was raised in the community where she has lived her entire life. In both Yup’ik and English, Marge shares the history and language with the school kids, what life was like when she was a little girl, and words of wisdom and advice she wants the children to remember as they grow up. Even though she has a hard time walking and uses a walker for support, she makes her way to the school twice a week to be an active participant in the community that has been an integral part of her identity and life.

As we think about successful aging and growing old in a way that is meaningful to everyone, perhaps more focus should be placed on social engagement of Elders and not just physical

and mental health conditions. The Alaska Native Elders in this study highlighted the importance of their family and community and how it provided them with a feeling of being needed and gave them a role and sense of purpose beyond themselves.

Many Elders discussed the importance of their family and community, not only as a source of support but also as an important part of their culture and identity. Elders talked about the importance of their community members reaching out to ask them to participate in activities to share their knowledge and experiences, which they said help them age successfully. Their wellbeing also involved being included in community events and activities and feeling they were supported beyond their immediate family when they offered to share with others.

An Elder shared, “I think the elders would be very appreciated if they could pass on their knowledge, like with skin sewing classes, kayak building classes, where an elder can teach others.”

When you think about your home and community, do you have opportunities to share your story and knowledge, and is it received well by others? Does your community ask you to share and do you feel valued while sharing?

Successful aging is a complex experience and this series of articles has highlighted some of the important things for Alaska Natives to have in their lives to enable them to age well: Mental and emotional wellbeing, spirituality, having a sense of purpose, and physical health and mobility. We have added the new fifth element, Gerotranscendence, the stage where Elders recreate themselves with wisdom accrued through life and experience an increase in life satisfaction; rising above old age. Which of these elements of Alaska Native successful aging do you find in your lives? When you think about your own successful aging, what is important to you? Just like Marge being in the classroom sharing her knowledge with the youth despite health challenges, we need to find activities that give us meaning and purpose.

This is the final 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.


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