Elders are deeply honored in many indigenous cultures. In the U.S., they also often face unique stresses, some passed down through generations. Many Native American older adults witnessed grief and intense racism as well as the loss of their ancestral lands and cultural practices. This can weigh on them throughout their lives and especially as they age.
Still, the ties that bind an indigenous community can do a lot to support them through the aging process, says Blythe Winchester, MD, director of geriatric services for Cherokee Indian Hospital in Cherokee, NC, and a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.
Winchester grew up on the Qualla Boundary Cherokee Indian Reservation in western North Carolina and lived there until leaving for Davidson College, followed by medical school at the University of North Carolina. After doing her geriatrics fellowship in Asheville, NC, in 2013, Winchester became the head of the skilled nursing facility at Cherokee Indian Hospital.
From a very young age, Winchester has been drawn to taking care of her elders. She’s revered them, learned from them, and she combines her formal medical education with that of her heritage to care for them. They’re the beating heart of her community, she says.
Winchester describes the challenges they face – and what she thinks would help.
What can be done to help Native Americans avoid isolation as they age?
Winchester: “It’s important to have employment and volunteer opportunities for the elderly throughout the reservation to keep them involved in their community.”
“For example, even those who have significant health problems and issues with mobility can work at our cultural center. Despite whatever medical condition elders might have, it’s important to spend productive time doing something with a purpose.”