June 18, 2014
Eleven Tips for Healthy Living from American Indian Alaska Native Elders
By: Randella Bluehouse

Jointly written by Randella Bluehouse and Rebecca Morgan

Talking, laughing and crying are ingredients to a perfect conversation with American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) elders. Rebecca Morgan and I had a candid conversation with seven elders one late afternoon. Their stories were poignant, loving and practical. Present were six ladies and one gentleman. This composition seems to fit closely with the general representation of the female to male ratio in our community.

We asked if they would help us with an article on healthy living. They were excited about participating. We explained that the focus of the article would be what they do to stay healthy and what they would recommend to other elders across the country.

The common theme to staying healthy according to our elders is staying active and being a part of the community and most notably actively participating with youth, especially grandchildren.

Here are the tips to living healthy they shared with us to share with our readers.

1. Work hard

One participant maintains a farm, which requires daily physical effort. For example: chopping wood, herding sheep, hauling bales of hay, mending fences, feeding farm animals and caring for five dogs.

2. Walk

Walking was one tip everyone mentioned. In the past everyone walked long distances on a regular basis, 2-3 miles a day was not uncommon. Today these elders try to walk a ½ hour every day or a bit longer three times a week. After hip surgery it might make sense to use a walking stick and slow down, but one woman refused to give up and was able to regain her mobility. One elder’s mother is 97 and refuses to use a walker, wheelchair or cane. She says that as long as she has legs she will walk. The only time she was willing to use a wheelchair was when they were in an airport trying to catch a flight and had to hurry to the gate. That determination and toughness was a common theme.

Walking can be a task or a pleasant chance to reconnect with nature. One woman described walking early in the morning with her husband. After the nearby alfalfa crops in the field have been irrigated, the moisture attracts lots of birds and other animals. They spot birds, coyote, rabbits, porcupine, ducks and geese and even seagulls. The fresh, clean air and cooing of the birds in the trees make this a spiritual experience and a part of the day that they look forward to.

3. Work and play with grandchildren

Many of the elders described their pride in their grandchildren and the importance of teaching them skills for life. One woman mentioned that she played softball when she was young and now coaches her grandchildren in fundamentals of the sport. Most of the elders enjoyed going to sporting events and showing support for their grandchildren’s athletic endeavors.

Sharing useful skills and passing on cultural values is another powerful social activity for elders. Baking bread using an outdoor adobe oven is important for the next generation to learn. Preparing the fire, kneading the dough and cleaning the oven all require physical effort and allow the grandchild to contribute an important role in the preparation of the family meal. By encouraging grandchildren to learn a special skill, it also requires elders to be engaged. They felt it was important for children to always have some task to complete.

4. Keep your brain sharp

One participant said she always keeps a book by her bed and reads the newspaper every day. By thinking critically and staying alert she remains quick-witted and dynamic. Other activities that engage the brain are weaving, sewing traditional dresses, needlepoint and making fringe for traditional dance shawls.

5. Native healing ways or alternative medicine

Consider approaches that can work in concert with western medicine such as herbs, supplements and meditation. One elder prefers to use traditional medicine on a regular basis. Several elders recommended having a positive attitude. This can take many forms such as using your creative imagination to learn how to listen to your body. If you provide positive information to your body, you will improve your health. (We recommend you check with your doctor before changing your health regimen.)

6. Exercise

One woman likes to cross train at the gym. She lifts weights and does pushups as part of her regimen. One day she noticed that the younger people around her did not have the strength to do pushups. She was impressed with herself and her grandkids were proud too and said “Alright grandma!” Others like to go bike riding, do yoga and swim. They agreed that you only get old if you are not active.

7. Dance traditional dances

Traditional dances require a great deal of stamina. The dancer must step in time to the drumbeat and move in unison with those who may be younger. One of the tribal centers offered a traditional dancing event which many enjoyed. Again, this form of exercise includes cultural expression as well.

8. Compete

Several elders had just finished competing in the All Indian Games Day. Some had won as many as four gold medals and competed at the national level. They obviously loved the event. By winning they helped to motivate the rest of their family. One told us about her grandson who is on the high school track and field team. When he won his first medal he came to her and said “Grandma, now I know how good it feels to win medals like you.” Check out the national association here. (National Senior Games Association http://www.nsga.com/)

9. Eat healthy and grow your own food

One participant said she rarely ate beef and generally had chicken, fish or salmon. Buffalo has become another favorite after a friend shared with her a buffalo curry recipe. Many enjoyed gardening and cooking meals with fresh vegetables.

10. Travel and be adventurous

Traveling to other countries can be a wonderful stimulant and requires good health in order to maintain the sometimes hectic pace. One woman found herself hiking in Siberia for three days and then riding on a camel’s back for an extended jaunt.

11. Laugh and tell stories

AI/AN elders work hard but they also enjoy visiting with each other, sharing stories and laughing. That gentle fellowship is healing and definitely a healthy way to age gracefully. Their funny stories and humor paint a picture of playful, feisty individuals who like to tease each other in a good-natured way. Spending time with older people usually involves good stories and insight into how they became the strong people they are.

Randella Bluehouse is the Executive Director of the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc. (NICOA). Rebecca Owl Morgan is a Project Coordinator at the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc. (NICOA). The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.