By BLYTHE S. WINCHESTER, MD
I am a geriatrician, a doctor who specializes in taking care of older people. According to the American Geriatrics Society, the US will need over 33,000 of us by 2025. Currently there are only 7,000 in this country, and only half of us are practicing full-time. We get trained to focus on function and independence in older people, to help provide person-centered care to enhance quality of life. It is not only because doing this is my path but because I am from here I believe that our elders, and tribal elders across the country, deserve the very best care, consideration, and respect.
I tell many of my patients what my Granny Kay used to say: “the only thing Golden about the Golden years is your pee”. I understand that aging can be difficult, and society is often not set up to fully support that process.
I appreciate Robert going over some of the risks and concerns associated with aging in the US. Being aware of abuse, your caregiving situation, and advance care planning are all important. However, it is also important to highlight the benefits and support our community has for elders. In addition to the legal assistance that was mentioned, we have tribal in-home care services, assistance with heat, senior trips and meals at Tsali Manor, transit, nutrition supplementation, an Alzheimer’s support group, and many others.
Many of the comments made in his article can contribute to this country’s problem with ageism. Ageism is stereotyping and/or discrimination based on someone’s age. Ageism can promote the negative ideas of aging, the “gut-wrenching” process Robert describes. Unfortunately, it is built into every aspect of our society. We buy “anti-aging” products, we describe memory problems as “senior moments”, and we call people “little old ladies” or “geezers”.
I want to encourage each and every person to re-frame your thoughts and perceptions about aging. Try to think of aging with an emphasis on strengths, achievements, potential, and skills rather than deficits.
Research shows that we are never too old to learn a new skill. On the contrary, as we age our ability to handle complexity increases. PET scans have shown that with aging, creative activity engages both hemispheres of the brain. In other words, wisdom and creativity continue until the very end of life. Let’s focus on the availability of activities and events that honor our elders and foster this creativity.
Social isolation is a problem for elders here as it is in other places. Please check on your family members and friends if you know he/she is alone and may need assistance. Even if you just spend time allowing him/her to reminisce that alone has been shown to be beneficial for memory and health for elders. Daily activities can be risky for elders and keeping your muscle strength through resistance exercises of some kind is extremely important. Focus on going to Ginger Lynn or lifting cans of beans in your home to preserve your muscle rather than thinking that “a routine walk from the bed to the bathroom might result in a broken bone, a bruise and battered body, or a life-threatening situation”. Be careful and cautious, yes. Assume every activity has risk and could injure you, no. I hope that this re-framing comes across clearly, that assuming the worst about aging will contribute to your own aging in a negative way.
Do people who are aging have more arthritis and other medical conditions? Yes. And death is a reality that elders see around them and confront on a regular basis. But ageism shortens our lives. One study reported that older adults who held negative views about old age faced life expectancies that were, on average, seven and a half years shorter than those of their peers. All other types of discrimination have champions and activists who confront this and work to move our society forward. But, with ageism, the champions are the excellent elders in our community and those champions die.
I try to be a champion as much as possible and our tribe is made of them. Our core values support the idea of honoring our elders and supporting them with the language, our language, that we provide for each other in a sense of community/tohi/gadugi. I know that there are many of you out there who are ready to be champions too- please help me in changing the frame and ageism so rampant in mainstream society. We are not mainstream, and we can be different and better than the way others perceive aging. Celebrate our elders, encourage, support, lift them up, and include them.
Dr. Winchester is a geriatrician at Cherokee Indian Hospital and the chief clinical consultant for Geriatrics and Palliative Care at Indian Health Service.