The wellness of Alaska Native communities, families, and the older adult will be enhanced through utilization of the contributions and worldview of Elders.The difference between “Elder” and “older adult” needs clear delineation in order to more effectively preserve and transmit cultural knowledge to future generations. This difference is embedded within a cultural interpretation; thus, among the diverse tribes of American Indian and Alaska Native people there is shared definition.
Definition of Elder
Ellerby (2001) defined an Elder as a tribal person who possesses certain qualities and maintains a specific lifestyle and knowledge. There are distinct differences between an “older adult person” and an “Elder.” An Elder describes the role in the following manner:
“It’s up to us to stand up, men and women, and talk to our youngsters and raise our traditional ways of knowing. What we teach them, we need to be role models or examples and follow the teaching…”
An Elder is defined as an individual who:
- has lived an extended life
- currently maintains a healthy lifestyle
- has a wealth of cultural information and knowledge (Ellerby, 2001; Wilson, 1996).
The Elder has expertise based upon know-how and provides consultation to the community and family when needed. As with all humans, Elders have made mistakes in the past. If possible, mechanisms for forgiveness need to be established so that Elders can move forward into their role. Elders must model the behaviors and standards of living they are teaching.
“It is not good to say something and not put it into practice what we’ve been taught. We need to follow these pathways and when a younger person sees you doing well, and they’re going to want to go that direction.”
Why differentiate between the older adult and Elders?
It is essential to differentiate between the older adult and Elders for many very important reasons. Within the Alaska Native culture, Elders are highly respected for their knowledge, positive lifestyle, and personality characteristics. Not all older adult individuals hold the status of Elder within tribes, communities, and families. When individuals are looked to as Elders, their lifestyle is held up as an example for others to follow.
This is not the case with all individuals at an advanced age. Without this differentiation, many of the youth of today do not respect nor desire to listen to the Elders. This has a tremendous negative impact upon the transmission of indigenous knowledge. One Elder described this process in the following manner:
“…if you don’t “walk your talk” the young people will go down the wrong path. That’s why I take care of myself in what I’ve learned and have been taught. Our ancestor’s ways of living need to be heeded to and be used on a daily basis with us being good role models…We are all one people…”