In Indigenous cultures, the social engagement of elders is recognized and highly valued. Through their engagement and wisdom, they contribute to their own wellbeing, but also to the wellbeing of children, youth, families and the entire community.
The holistic approach of Indigenous cultures carries meaning and hope: through its contribution to intergenerational solidarity, the social engagement of Indigenous elders can help meet health and wellness needs.(1)
But what does research tell us about the different ways that Indigenous elders can contribute to individual and collective wellbeing in their community?
What research tells us
A recent moderate-quality systematic review examined the effects of the social engagement of Indigenous elders on individual and community well-being.(1) Partners working in health centres or band councils and Indigenous elders from eight of the eleven aboriginal nations in Quebec made it possible to find relevant documents that could not have been found using conventional scientific research methods. While the review was designed to include any Indigenous sources, the search was limited to documents in English and French, as well as to the Canadian context, for feasibility reasons. In total, 144 documents were included in the review.
The analysis found that Indigenous elders contribute to wellbeing through:
• their relationships and interactions with community members and with non-natives;
• oral and written intergenerational communications;
• engagement in community, social and civic life;
• volunteering and employment; and
• family life.
The contributions of elders target young people, families and communities, thus promoting intergenerational solidarity, notably by:
• sharing traditional knowledge and teaching indigenous languages;
• caring for grandchildren and promoting family-conflict resolution;
• integrating traditional healing practices in health centres and imparting traditional knowledge;
• promoting positive individual and collective attitudes and behaviours such as reciprocity, resilience, anger management, perseverance, or dignity;
• strengthening social cohesion;
• supporting interventions to prevent disease and promote mental and physical health; and
• promoting the acceptability of health and social services.
Turning to elders in times of pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all areas of our lives. For children and youth, the pandemic also had a significant impact with school closures (among other things). Students had to turn to remote learning (behind their screens) which may have contributed to feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and more.(2; 3)
However, some indigenous communities have relied on land-based learning activities during the pandemic. By relying on elders, these communities were able to offer experiential learning activities outside the classroom. It was an opportunity to capitalize on culture and traditional practices in order to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.(4; 5)
Such an example reflects the importance of intergenerational relationships, but also the fundamental role that elders can have in sharing their knowledge and contributing to the wellbeing of their community. Land-based learning is also a promising practice that could inspire school boards to help educators work in partnership with local Indigenous communities and elders to explore outdoor activities that integrate Indigenous knowledge with environmental education.(4)