Elders are deeply honored in many indigenous cultures. In the US, they are also often subject to special stresses, some of which are passed down through generations. Many older Native American adults were Witnesses grief and intense racism and the loss of their ancestral lands and cultural practices. This can burden them throughout their lives and especially in old age.
Still, the ties that bind an Indigenous community can do a lot to support them through the aging process, says Blythe Winchester, MD, director of geriatric services at the Cherokee Indian Hospital in Cherokee, NC, and a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians .
Winchester grew up on the Qualla Boundary Cherokee Indian Reservation in western North Carolina and lived there until he attended Davidson College followed by medical school at the University of North Carolina. After completing her geriatric fellowship in Asheville, NC in 2013, Winchester became the director of the Cherokee Indian Hospital’s Qualified Nursing Facility.
From a young age, Winchester was drawn to looking after her elders. She adored them, learned from them, and combined her formal medical training with that of their origins to care for them. They are the beating heart of their community, she says.
Winchester describes the challenges they face – and what they think would help.
Winchester: “It’s important to have employment and volunteer opportunities for older people across the reservation to engage them in their community.”
“For example, people with serious health and mobility problems can also work in our cultural center. Regardless of the illness older people may have, it is important to spend productive time doing something meaningful.”
Winchester: “A tight-knit indigenous community can make a huge difference when it comes to taking care of aging. The Qualla Frontier, in particular, helps elders with tasks such as mowing their grass, paying for heating bills, and getting necessary nutritional supplements. They can even help provide Christmas gifts for those who cannot afford them, as well as other senior services that may not be available in other communities.”
Winchester: “Elders who live in urban areas and have been displaced from their homes for one reason or another are particularly at risk. The connection and cultural understanding that can be lost when they leave their place of origin can put them at risk, especially if they lack many of the services listed above.”
“Some of the elders are in their 90s or older and have witnessed extremely traumatic events. For example, some recall being forcibly placed in boarding schools far from their families. Memories of these events can lead to injustice emphasize to our elders.”
Winchester: “Indigenous peoples already face problems that other communities may not face. They face many of the same types of chronic conditions as other aging populations, including heart defect, coronary heart disease, and diabetes. But they are also subject to conditions more common in Native American communities, such as for reasons we don’t understand autoimmune diseases as well as higher rates of neurocognitive disorders such as dementia.”
Winchester: “Everything has to do with stress. Diabetes, for example, is a vascular disease caused by inflammation in the body. And inflammation can be caused by stress. That’s one of the reasons we use behavioral consultants for patients who do everything they can to take control of their health blood sugar through diet, exercise, and medication, but are still not seeing results. If you don’t ask what’s going on in your life, you may be missing a large part of what causes the condition. And diabetes is just one example.”
Winchester: “The more we can educate about and revitalize our cultural practices, the better. This connection to what we used to have is so important. We had an intricate and sophisticated way of caring for our elders before it was taken from us, and the more we can connect to that legacy, the more the aging community will benefit.”
“Our health care They used to be empowered, driven by the individual trying to rebalance their body. Now it’s about a doctor with full power, and many indigenous people still lack confidence in this method. When you feel like you have a say, you are much more likely to be involved in your own well-being.”