The other day I visited my grandmother at her nursing home in Denver. The lobby of the building was filled with senior citizens, as one would expect in assisted living. Most of the people were in wheel chairs or using walkers and many were sleeping where they sat. As I walked through the building in search of my grandmother, I began to feel a little depressed. The overwhelming presence of people approaching their death gave the building a sad energy, and I felt sorry for each person I passed. But the longer I thought about it, the less I could understand why I felt such grief. I thought about our experience at Pine Ridge and how I viewed the elders there compared to the elders I encountered in this instance. I saw the elders at Pine Ridge as wise and full of knowledge, but I saw the people living with my grandmother as senile and fragile. My differing experiences at Pine Ridge and at the nursing home inspired me to take a deeper look at how elders are perceived in Native American culture versus mainstream American society.
In America, there are a large number of stigma’s and stereotypes that coincide with aging. In our high-paced, profit-oriented society, it is hard to see the value in our elders. We see them as being incapable of working and in an overly dramatic and simplified sense they become “useless”. Therefore, they often are set aside and do not hold important positions in our society. In my experience, many people hold the view that as we age we become senile, our cognitive abilities diminish and often time our memory. However, this stereotype is not completely true. Although age does take a great toll physically, it doesn’t always harm our cognition. Small, insignificant memory retention may decrease with age and we may forget things like where we put our keys, but our long-term memories stay intact, unless one suffers from a disease. And even then only 15% of the population suffers from such diseases.
In Native American cultures, the view of aging and the elderly is quite different. I noticed in Pine Ridge how much value the people placed in their elders. The older generations were treated with respect and when the elders spoke they received everyone’s undivided attention. As many of us know, the elders in Native American societies play a vital role in the preservation of the culture because of the strong reliance on oral traditions. Elders teach younger generations about spirituality and history. Many elders hold central positions in ceremonies and healing practices. The mind is not viewed as deteriorating as it is in many mainstream circles. Instead the mind is seen as strong and beautiful, filled with compassion, wisdom and memories. Although their minds are strong, the body is still weak. However, the belief system of many tribes cast the physical act of aging in a more positive light. In their minds, our bodies are a sacred gift handed down to us from our ancestors. Meanwhile in our culture, our bodies are perceived as a possession and therefore we are threatened by sickness and aging. If one views the body as a sacred gift, then you are more at peace with yourself and the world and understand that you are just part of a greater story. In many teachings, women learn that their sagging breasts, stretch marks and wrinkles are “marks of wisdom and beautiful badges of honor for carrying the sacred responsibility” and the age present in their bodies are “manifestations of wisdom coming to fullest fruitage” (Audlin 85). In our society, wrinkles are blemishes and a sign of weakness. They must be removed because they show we are becoming older and therefore weaker.
The relationship of the elders and other members of the native community are strong, especially between elders and children. Life is a hoop and death and birth are found next to each other. Elders and children are at very similar stages in life, they are both very close to the spirit world and unencumbered by the burdens of life. They are more naturally aware of the presence of spirits and don’t perceive reality the same way as adults. As adults in America we often view the elderly as suffering delusions and mental debilitations that come with old age but this is just a cultural axiom and it is possible that elders are just experiencing a reality that we are unable to perceive as adults. In storytelling and teaching, both elders and children see no essential difference between story and reality. Therefore stories are an easy medium for elders to share wisdom with younger generations. As we have discussed in class, oral history is an important aspect of Native traditions. Native people believe that experience holds great value and because elders have a wealth of experience their stories are a valuable resource for the tribe.
The reason that my interest was sparked by the treatment of elders in Native American traditions is that my grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and I have been having trouble coming to terms with her aging. I found great value in seeing how another culture and belief system views such an important topic. Through looking at the traditions of Native Americans, I have developed a new view of my grandmother’s condition. My grandmother tells me the same stories over and over and over and over. Thinking about it, I find it sad that I know so little of her life, I only get glimpses of it from the few stories she remembers. However, after reading so much about the value of oral traditions, I have found new meaning in her stories. For example, there is one story that she tells me almost every time I see her. When she was young and sprite, her and a girlfriend backpacked through Europe and on their journey they went to Switzerland (my grandma’s home country). One night, they got lost trying to find the Inn they were planning on staying at. They arrived at the Inn in a desperate frenzy and the clerk would not let them in. According to her, the Inn closes at 9:00 pm and it was 9:30. Despite their pleas the woman refused to let them in. My grandma and her friend ended up sleeping in a field with cows. It was in this field that she stole a cowbell that was around one of the cow’s necks. I always find this story amusing, especially when she tells me multiple times in a day. But besides its humorous qualities I have never given more thought to it. Now, I was inspired by the value of oral tradition and have found significance in this short tale. Through this story my grandma has taught me the value of spontaneity and the rewards having a positive attitude has. When my grandma tells this story, the tone is always nostalgic and I can tell it is a fond memory. My grandma and her friend did not plan on sleeping in a field. However, they were open to a new experience and out of the ordeal she got a beautiful cowbell that she now keeps in her room.
My grandmother is the most positive person that I know and she always has a bright view of the world. By learning more about Native American oral traditions and the value that they place on elders, I can better appreciate everything she has shown me. By listening to her stories, not only am I gaining valuable knowledge but I am also allowing her to release her power and energy into the world. She may not have many memories left, but through her actions she shows me how I want to live my life.