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Interview: Alaskan Native Elders Share the Secrets of Successful Aging


Dr. Jordan Lewis

Dr. Jordan Lewis

Our culture shapes the way we age, yet few studies have looked at the impact of culture on our views of successful aging.

Dr. Jordan Lewis, a research associate with the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has examined the impact of culture on aging, in rural communities in southwestern Alaska.

The study discovered that Alaskan Native Elders equated successful aging with achieving the status of Elder in the community.

The research was reported online in The Gerontologist (Feb. 28, 2011).

To learn more, AHB tracked Dr. Lewis down in Fairbanks, Alaska

Ruth Dempsey: So what is life like in rural Alaska? And what are some of your memories of growing up there?

Jordan Lewis: The study took place in Bristol Bay. This is the southwestern region of Alaska on the Alaska Peninsula. These are primarily commercial fishing communities and are home to three cultural groups: Aleuts, Athabascans and Yup’ik Eskimos.

Dr. Jordan Lewis - salmon

Bristol Bay is a culturally diverse region. It touts the largest red salmon harvest in the world. This region is rich in history and continues to prosper.

The Native peoples carry on traditional subsistence lifestyles, participating in the commercial fishing industry and living off the land and sea. Many of the elders and residents continue to fish, hunt and trap. They pick berries and plants.

This region of Alaska is not on the road system, so these communities are only accessible by air or boat in the summer months.

I grew up in a family of commercial fishermen. I remember fishing during the summer months. There were lots of fish to pick out of the nets and late nights on the beach. I spent a lot of time playing outside with my cousins. During the summer, we also picked berries and smoked fish for the winter.

My fondest memories are of visiting with my great grandparents and other relatives and elders in the community.

RD: Your research focused on community Elders . . .

JL: That’s right. In this study, the term “elder” is capitalized to differentiate between the indigenous elders of Alaska and those who are just considered elderly. This is a cultural convention that distinguishes those elders who have lived traditionally and continue to serve as an integral part of the community. These individuals are viewed as role models.

RD: How would you describe the participants?

JL: The 26 Alaskan Native Elders came from one of six villages in the Bristol Bay region. They were Aleut, Athabascan or Yup’ik Eskimo. They ranged in age from 61 to 93 years.

More than half lived independently with their spouses or partners. A majority of the widowed women lived with their extended family. The average household size was four.

The Elders living in assisted-living facilities in the region’s hub community were less enthusiastic about the study and less willing to participate in the interviews. They felt they were not aging as well as those who were independent or living with family members.

RD: These older people equate successful aging with becoming an Elder . . .

JL: That’s right. In fact, the study uncovered four elements that Alaskan Native Elders consider important for Eldership.

RD: So let’s take a look at the elements. One is emotional well-being.

JL: Elders talked about the importance of a positive outlook. They focused on the need to remain optimistic in times of change or when faced with personal challenges, such as coping with chronic illness or limited mobility.

They also stressed the need for emotional balance and control. Elders explained:

  • the danger of allowing mistakes and damaged relationships to stay bottled up inside;
  • the need to forgive; and
  • to move forward.

Participants valued their relationships. They believed that strengthening bonds with family and community created harmony and enhanced community health.

RD: Another element is community engagement.

JL: The study found that opportunities for involvement gave Elders a sense of purpose and a recognized role in the community.

The Elders saw this as a reciprocal relationship. A few of the participants discussed the changing role of Elders in villages once the Western form of government was introduced. The tribal chiefs, for example, were replaced with tribal council members, such as presidents and vice presidents.

Today Elder councils exist in villages throughout Bristol Bay. Participants were grateful for this level of inclusion in community life.

The psychologist Erik Erikson called the desire to further the well-being of future generations “generativity.” Almost every Elder discussed the importance of passing down their knowledge to the young. They talked about:

  • reading stories to students in schools;
  • teaching traditional hunting skills and subsistence practices;
  • tutoring students in their history and culture; and
  • teaching Native languages.

The Elders also expressed interest in having community centres across Bristol Bay, where old and young could meet, share their skills and stories and access medical personnel.

RD: Spirituality is a third element of Eldership . . .

JL: That’s right. Spirituality, or religion, played a significant role in the health and well-being of these Elders.

Church attendance was more prevalent among the Aleut communities where the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church was more strongly felt.

“You know that the old people, who are religious, keep going to church until they can’t make it anymore,” one participant told us. “The ones I’ve seen were into their 90s, who were still going to church.”

Attending church was one way for the Elders to socialize and be active in their community. However, their definition of spirituality was not confined to church attendance. Most Elders said they lived their spirituality throughout the day, praying for family and community, and weaving their traditional beliefs with church practice.

Yet, it is important to note that spirituality does not ensure successful aging.

RD: The final characteristic of Eldership is physical health . . .

JL: For these Elders, physical health is about eating a traditional diet, being as active as they are able and abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

Dr. Jordan Lewis - village

But even participants with poor physical health viewed themselves as aging well.

“It’s just the attitude of that person,” one Elder remarked. “Being positive is number one for aging well. Positive and active.”

RD: These older people offer a different “take” on successful aging. It is more holistic.

JL: This is not surprising because much of the literature on successful aging is based on a biomedical model and rooted in a western perspective, which does not include the views of Indigenous Elders.

Among Alaskan Native cultural groups, the concept of health and well-being is holistic, involving all aspects of an individual. As one 73-year old male participant put it, “Aging [is] where you feel good about yourself. You’ve completed the circle, back to the drum handle.”

RD: What did you learn from the study?

JL: For one thing, the study has deepened my understanding of the diversity that exists in the field of successful aging. And it highlighted the importance of understanding aging from the perspective of older adults themselves.

In a nutshell, the participants equated successful aging with becoming an Elder and achieving a respected role in the community.

And they identified four characteristics of Eldership:

  • emotional balance;
  • community engagement;
  • spirituality; and
  • physical health.

RD: So what’s next?

JL: From here, we need more research to determine the amount and type of services needed to support growing numbers of Alaskan Native elders in the region.

Meanwhile, I am working on a program to help improve the well-being of Alaskan Native elders, who have moved to long-term care facilities in urban settings, such as Anchorage.