American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities are experiencing sociocultural changes, including climate change, outmigration of younger people and relocation due to environmental or health-related changes. These changes are adversely impacting the health and well-being of AI/AN elders, including a breakdown of family systems and intergenerational connections. This breakdown, with younger people relocating to urban centers for employment or education opportunities, also leaves fewer informal supports for elders, and can lead to poorer mental health, loss of sense of community and connectedness and increased isolation.
Despite these changes, AI/AN elders continue to exhibit hope for the future through their commitment to and passion for passing on their knowledge and skills to future generations, known as indigenous cultural generativity. Generativity is one of the key tenets of successful aging. Engagement in indigenous cultural generativity is a way to preserve AI/AN cultural values, improve the health and well-being of their families and communities and contribute to healthy aging for all generations.
Generativity and American Indian and Alaska Native Elders
Although Erikson long ago identified generativity as a topic associated with successful aging, it has not received much attention regarding its direct impact on health and well-being among AI/AN elders. The concept of generativity is a key element of Erikson’s psychosocial development theory, defined as the urge to contribute to the well-being of other people, particularly younger generations. Generativity shares many similarities with the universal indigenous value of caring for others, teaching and leading future generations. As a group, we are raised to respect our elders, listen to their stories, learn by observation, and share what we know with others to help them be healthy.
Psychoanalyst George Vaillant stated, “the mastery of generativity should be strongly correlated with successful adaptation to old age, for to keep it, you have to give it away,” which is same sentiment AI/AN elders embody in their desire to pass on what they know to the youth.
AI/AN elders are “keepers of the meaning,” a term coined by Vaillant to define a person who is situated between Erikson’s seventh and eighth stages of development, generativity, and ego-integrity. These individuals are concerned with preserving a culture’s traditions to preserve their way of life and being for future generations, and in teaching them how to live a life according to their cultural values.
AI/AN elders have always been ‘keepers of meaning.’
In a study by Manheimer (1995), his subjects demonstrated a capacity to transform an experience of failure or personal suffering into a morally instructive account that functions to redeem the past and throw light on the present and future. What makes these narratives redemptive is the way a source of pain, anger, vulnerability, trauma, or humiliation becomes a vehicle leading to pleasure, satisfaction, strength, solace, and pride.
Kotre calls this the “transformation of defect.” For example, caregivers may experience depression and anxiety because of their care receiver’s behavioral and psychological dementia symptoms, and rather than feel defeated, they could find meaning and purpose in these difficult experiences. Developing caregiver redemptive narratives enables them to mentor others, feel generative by sharing their experience and improve the journey of younger caregivers.
Generative acts and behaviors of AI/AN elders have positive impacts on preserving history, cultural values, language, and traditional practices of their community, but also, engaging in generative acts positively affects the physical and mental health of the elders. Not only do they experience feelings of meaningful engagement and purpose, but also improved physical health.
Benefits of Generativity on Elder Health and Well-being
Indigenous cultural generative behaviors and activities enable elders to feel their lives are worthwhile and meaningful and contribute to a world that is safe and healthy for the seventh generation (seven generations into the future). This is the stage during which people need to acquire the ability to care for others and not only themselves. If adults manage to navigate this stage successfully, and even learn to care about others and feel they are leaving a better world for the next seven generations, they typically experience a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.
A generative adult realizes their potential as a valuable resource to be shared with others to give back and to improve society, pass on the lessons and wisdom of their elders to the youth and serve as a role model for their family and community.
Studies demonstrate participation in generative acts, such as teaching or mentoring younger generations, predicts reduced morbidity, better physical function, feelings of mastery, life satisfaction, improved mortality and improvements in cognitive function.
To encourage AI/AN elders to engage in generative behaviors, we need to support older adults to remain in their families and communities.
Further, having opportunities to be generative increases social interaction, which affords individuals the opportunity to become invested in and make a difference in their community, fulfilling their commitment and concern to guide the future, or seventh generation. Individuals who feel more generative take better care of themselves to maintain their ability to contribute, engage in more social and productive activity and experience greater affective well-being, all of which may be paths to better physical, mental and spiritual well-being. According to Gruenwald, Liao and Seeman, older adults in their 60s and 70s who felt more generative were less likely to show increases in physical disabilities or to die as they aged into their 70s and 80s.
To encourage AI/AN elders to engage in generative behaviors, we need to support them to remain in their families and communities and provide opportunities for them to share their stories and knowledge with the younger generations. For example, by creating opportunities for AI/AN caregivers to volunteer as peers and mentors for current caregivers to help them navigate the caregiver journey, improve feelings of caregiver mastery and honor and respect cultural values in their caregiving experience.
Second, attention to policies and programs that encourage and support intergenerational activities is needed to build the rich potential relationship between elders and younger people. Third, attention to indigenous cultural generativity suggests that also we need to attend to the positive contributions made by elders, particularly those from a diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, who are not only committed to the health and well-being of their families and communities but to preserving the culture and history of their family and community, providing them with a sense of purpose, identity, and feelings of generativity.
Given the growing number of people with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD) in AI/AN communities, the number of caregivers has also increased. Considering the health benefits of generativity, it makes sense to explore the relationship of caregiving and caregivers’ feelings of generativity. Most generativity research focuses on benefits occurring between elders and youth, but very little research explores whether being a caregiver increases one’s feeling of generativity. If caregivers’ feelings of generativity increase over time, it will be important to explore if they experience similar health benefits, which in turn also may improve the caregiver dyad relationship and experiences.
Roundup of Generativity’s Positives
These findings suggest AI/AN communities, in partnership with public health and health promotion scientists, may want to devote further attention to understanding factors that maintain and enhance perceptions of generativity in later life. Those who feel more generative may take better care of themselves to maintain their ability to contribute, engage in social and productive activities and experience greater affective well-being, all of which are pathways to better physical and physical well-being.
Elders are the foundation of their community and the keepers of its meaning, collective wisdom, traditional stories and knowledge, and provide direction and mentorship for younger generations. Their engagement in indigenous cultural generativity is a way to preserve AI/AN cultural values, improve the health and well-being of their families and communities, and contribute to AI/AN successful aging for all generations.
Jordan P. Lewis, PhD, MSW (Unangax, Native Village of Naknek), is associate director of the Memory Keepers Medical Discovery Team and professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth, Minn.