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Study: Five Secrets of Resilient Aboriginal Women


Everybody goes through tough times, but some people navigate them better. So what’s their secret?

Cyndy Baskin and Caitlin Davey from Ryerson University in Toronto, (Ont., Canada) recently put that question to 12 Aboriginal women living in a senior housing complex in Toronto. They all lived alone, and were aged 60 to 75.

The findings published online in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work (Dec. 1, 2014) revealed the women used a number of strategies to help them through tough times.

So here are five:

1. They stay connected: The women spoke about their family and friends, and their close ties to Toronto’s Aboriginal community services.

Some of the women had moved from their First Nations communities to be close to their grandchildren in Toronto.

"I babysit my grandkids a lot," one woman remarked. "Being with my grandchildren keeps me young. I love having them around me."

Others emphasized the strong sense of community among Aboriginal people in Toronto. "The community is my extended family," said one woman.

The study revealed participants relied on this close-knit community for key services, such as transportation, fitness classes, diabetes support groups and one-and-one-sessions with traditional healers and Elders.

2. They pass on their Aboriginal traditions: In addition to keeping connected, the women discussed the importance of passing on their traditional knowledge and values to the next generation.

One Elder in the project described her community roles:

  • opening and closing events
  • conducting ceremonies
  • offering traditional teachings
  • staff training, and
  • counselling.

"I don’t know if I am going to be well enough tomorrow," another woman said. "I don’t know if I am going to be here. But my visions and teachings that come from the spirit world, they will be here."

The study found that many of the women in the study attended residential schools, and they only learned about their Aboriginal culture later in life.

As one participant explained:

Many of us have to reclaim our teachings and ceremonies as adults because we didn’t grow up with them. It went from me searching for my own roots into being someone who then continued to help people do the same thing.

Significantly, another woman observed the teaching role of Aboriginal seniors in the community had weakened.

3. They find the silver lining: The study found that like other resilient people, participants looked for the silver lining in adversity. "We’re lucky we can laugh at ourselves," one woman remarked. "During my life, I remember there were so many moments of tragedy and drama."

Another stressed the importance of living in the moment:

Enjoy everything! Enjoy every minute! Enjoy every person that you come into contact with. See who they are and love them. Enjoy the birds singing, the flowers, the trees, all of creation.

4. They are spiritual: The study found most women practiced some level of spirituality through ceremonial practice, use of traditional medicines and honouring the cycle of the seasons

As well, several mentioned their connection to loved ones in the spirit world.

Others spoke about spirituality as something that exists for all people.

Here is how one woman put it:

We each have our own souls and our ancestors in our hearts. I think our ancestors are always with us and we walk with them. I think the same applies to Asian people, Black people, all non-Native people. You are who you are and if people could learn to respect and honour other people in these ways, we would be a lot better off.

5. They cherish friendship: Resilient people rely on others to help them survive tough times. The women in this study treasured their close bonds to one another, above all.

In particular, they appreciated opportunities to nurture friendship in safe spaces, such as sharing circles, special outings, communal meals and through the activities created especially for them in the building where many of them live.

"Girlfriends! I never had any until I came here," one woman remarked. "It’s nice to have friends my own age. We have a lot to talk and laugh about."