Aging: Translation

One of the definitions of translation is the change or conversion to another form or appearance (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2005) and each person is responsible for translating their own experiences. In addition to translating their experiences, they define their experiences and derive meaning from those experiences and seek to find comfort in their experiences. The general public in the United States have their views and beliefs about growing older and we tend to focus on youth and beauty, avoiding aging and believing we will one day be old. As we age, we seek to understand our physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional changes and find meaning in our experiences, looking for others with similar experiences that can walk alongside us and join us on a journey of aging.

In the previous entry, Emily Wentzell discussed the idea that aging provokes disjunction between mind and body and that our bodies are not feeling the chronological age we are. She provides a beautiful example from her family, but I have been in discussions with colleagues and friends who tell me that 50 is the new 30 and by the time we reach 70 it will be the new 50. The discussions intrigued me because my colleagues are pushing back aging and hanging on to their youth for as long as they can.  I grew up with my great grandparents, who were Alaska Native (Aleut), and as an Indigenous researcher myself who studies successful aging in rural Alaska, I grew up respecting our elders and looking forward to becoming elder because it is an honor, you are respected and sought out for your knowledge and experiences. I conducted a study on successful aging among Alaska Native Elders in my home region of Alaska (Bristol Bay), who define aging from a holistic approach, which steers away from the biomedical approach to aging that dominates the western world and gerontology literature. Four elements emerged, each of which highlighted important aspects of successful aging, referred to as Eldership in my study. These elements define Eldership in Bristol Bay: (a) emotional well-being, (b) community engagement, (c) spirituality, and (d) physical health. It is important to distinguish between successful aging and Eldership in this study. The term “successful aging” served as the foundation of this study in that I wished to estab­lish an Alaska Native definition of successful aging to gain a clearer picture of what this means to Elders in Bris­tol Bay. As I worked with the Elders and analyzed the interviews, it became clear that rather than defining successful aging for themselves, they were describing characteristics of Elders in their com­munities they felt demonstrated what they believed to be successful aging. Rather than provide one definition of successful aging for Bristol Bay Elders, this study highlights the characteristics found admirable in Elders who served as role models, or attained Eldership, and were considered as suc­cessful elders by their community.

As the AN population continues to grow older in rural communities, it will be important to address the issues facing Alaska Native Elders and determine what they need to age successfully and remain in their own home and community. As White (1952) points out, it is important to understand the culture and environment in order to fully understand the experi­ences of the Elders and better understand how they define, or translate, their aging experiences. Rossen, Knafl, and Flood (2008) sum up what research on successful aging should do: successful aging from the elders’ own words and descriptions that will provide the contextual knowledge for developing interventions and health care programs.

How I was raised in the Native culture and what I learned through my college and graduate education in gerontology, social work, and community psychology do not combine well and they actually head in opposite directions when it comes to understanding the aging process.  I was raised to respect elders and strive to become an Elder myself, and my textbooks and the news/media promote products and procedures to look younger, stay youthful and avoid looking old. What this boils down to is different experiences and cultural lenses through which we view the aging process.

Aging occurs as soon as we are born and we are constantly navigating our mind and body as it changes, develops, and matures until we pass away. Emily Wentzell begins her notes discussing the notion that aging itself provokes movement and that it challenges stability and stasis.  I believe this is correct, and this notion of changing as we age comes to us as we mature and grow wiser in our years.  I remember being in my early 20’s believing I knew and could do everything, the world was my oyster and I would be at that age forever.  Now that I have matured, established a career, have family, and reflect on my life experiences and stories and wisdom of our Alaska Native Elders, I realize that my mortality is very real and I am a better person today because of how I navigated my experiences. As I have matured I have translated my experiences of aging to be something I could understand and accept, and have learned that how I translate the expected changes that come with aging is different from how my parents have translated their experiences, or how my colleagues in gerontology will experience aging.

I would challenge everyone to reflect on how they view aging, how they interact and approach older adults in their family and community. What have they taught you about the aging experience?  Do you view aging from a holistic approach?   What are your understandings and experiences and how will you translate your experiences against those of others and the general public’s fear of growing old?  

Sources  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2005).  

Rossen, E. K., Knafl, K. A., & Flood, M. (2008). Older women’s percep­tions of successful aging. Activities, Adaptation, and Aging, 32, 73–88. doi:10.1080/01924780802142644.  

White, R. W. (1952). Lives in progress. A study of the natural growth of personality. New York: The Dryden Press.

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Biographical Note: Jordan Lewis (Aleut) is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and affiliate of Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington.