Part 6 - Secrets to happiness in old age

Agnes and Teddy Mayac, ages 73 and 77 respectively, say the values of patience, respect, and cooperation that they learned growing up in the Inupiat Eskimo village of King Island, located 90 miles northwest of Nome, are still relevant today.
Credit Joaqlin Estus

  By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA News Director

Research shows happiness follows a “U” shape throughout life, with higher levels in youth that drop until about age 50, then rise again into old age. A Harvard study of adult development shows a good marriage at age 50, and the ability to play, create and form new friendships after retirement, are stronger indicators of happiness at age 80 than low cholesterol or high income.

University of Washington assistant professor Dr. Jordon Lewis says people who feel like they’re leaving a legacy, or making the world a better place are also happier. For his doctoral dissertation, he surveyed Aleut, Athabascan, and Yup’ik elders in his home region of Bristol Bay. Lewis says some of them talked about how they overcame alcoholism, survived the suicide of a loved one, spent years gathering food from nature and practicing cultural traditions, and now want to pass on their experience.

“Elders, in the research I do now, talked about even if people would just give opportunity to share, I have all this knowledge I want to share because once I’m gone, the knowledge is gone,’ said Lewis. Having those opportunities gives them a sense of purpose, promotes their health, and they age better.”

Lewis is studying elders’ wishes to share what they know about subsistence and nature, or skills such as beading, kayak-building, and language. He says healthy communities draw on their elders.

“The benefit to the community is the history is there. They can learn their language. They know who their ancestors are, who they come from, where they’re from. Because it’s very important for Natives to know where they come from to know where they’re going. And so learning from their elders is really important because it promotes healthy families, healthy communities, and lifts this idea of preserving culture.”

Southcentral Foundation (SCF) vice president Ilene Sylvester says respect for elders, and heeding their advice, is a big part of Alaska Native cultures. She says that’s a value at SCF, and is reflected in the weight given to its Elders Council.

“So we have an intern program because they brought that to us years ago, the need where they were watching their grandchildren and wanted them to have something positive to do,” says Sylvester. “So they were part of starting that discussion. And now we have an intern program with 60 young people that come in the organization every summer and about 15 in the wintertime.”

Teddy Mayac is 77, a retired civil engineer who grew up in the now abandoned village of King Island. He says because of the close ties of everyone on King Island, its isolation from other communities, and the need to work together, villagers were taught to keep a positive attitude, to be patient, and to treat others with kindness and generosity -- values he wants to pass on to younger generations.

“Let our people remember the good things, the honor, the respect, the love, the cohesiveness,” says Mayac. “It doesn’t matter who it is, we have to honor them and bear with whatever comes between us. Confrontation isn’t good.”

Mellisa Heflin, an elders outreach coordinator for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, says her grandmother urged her and her children to learn the Inupiaq language, which helped her realize something about how she views herself and her culture:

“It’s important to be proud of your heritage and don’t be shy to share it with others,” says Heflin. “When you put a mask over it, it just makes things more difficult So if you speak your language, speak it. It’s part of who you are. If you eat another food, enjoy it. Because it’s who you are. So if you’re not proud of your heritage then you’re not proud to be yourself.”

Another reason to spend time with elders is that as life expectancy increases, many of us will be traveling the road they’re on, and would benefit from learning how to live well, with joy, from retirement into our 80s and beyond.

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