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Elders: a treasure trove or a liability

Mary Thomas, Associate Editor, ATB, Jan 2019, Edmonton

In indigenous cultures around the world, we see the significance of elders in strengthening families and communities. Here in Canada, indigenous communities have a revered place for elderswho teach the vision of life contained in indigenousphilosophies.It is common practice forrespected elders to be called upon to help communities with decisionsregarding everything from health issues, to community development, togovernmental negotiations regarding land use and self-government.

People recognized as “Elders” havelived through difficult times, both personally and politically. Some have hadproblems with the law, with alcohol, with family separation; some have seensuch things happen to others. They learned from those experiences, that they turned to thetraditional culture for understanding, support and healing. They arethereforenon-judgmental and committed to helping others.

An elder is a specialist in ceremonies, traditional teachings, language, and heritage as it applies to mind, body andspirit. As each individual is unique in their experience, learning, personalityand knowledge of traditional culture, each potentially has something different to offer.

When you ask an elder for advice about tradition, you are alsoasking for a kind of honesty and purity and the best of tradition. The ability to tell a story in a waythat it’s meaningful to you is almost an art. The community seesthese unique attributes, recognize them and callupon that, that is the process whereby that personbecomes an elder in the community.

Elders are the cornerstone of cultureas they are the keepers and teachers of traditional teachings.They are the link with past, present and future. In an Elders’ own words: “We are helpers,that is the highest level we can be. We are part of the family.” Despite wearing so many hats, it is in the role as “grandmothers andgrandfathers” that they have a true relationship with the Native community.

Nuclear families, divorce etc have weakened the family unit and we see a lot of senior abuse in communities. It is good to remember the days when families were close knit and grandparents had a significant role in families. Grandparents bring unconditional love, mentoring, loyal companionship, adventure, kindness, humor, humility, patience, zest for life, handing down family traditions, the ability to laugh at oneself and as storytellers are windows into their parent’s childhood. It’s truly a blessing to have your grandparents live with you when children are young and need care. Families with different generations under one roof are stronger and healthier than others.

Today we miss the deep satisfaction experienced when love and care flow between generations. I’ll Love You Forever by Robert Munsch depicts a mother cradling her infant son in her arms, and she sings the words, “I’ll love you forever.” By the end of the story, the roles are reversed. The son, now grown, cradles his frail, aged mother in his arms and pens the words, “I’ll love you forever.” Send in your comments at [email protected]

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