Investigating the Health and Wellbeing of Alaska Native Elderly in Northwest Alaska through Community Participatory Based Research Methods
Alaska Native communities have a strong sense of respect for their older residents. In many Alaskan rural communities, whose primary population is Alaska Native people, the elderly are still relied upon for their deep knowledge and understanding of the natural environment, heritage languages, and cultural practices which are important not only for economic survival but social cohesion and community wellbeing. However, change is deeply affecting Alaska Native communities and Alaska Native people are forced to adapt to the new environmental, economic and social realities that affect their worlds. This research project will explore how Alaska Native elderly are adapting to rapid economic, environmental, and social change by exploring Alaska Native elderly and their own understanding and definition of what successful aging means to them. The current research project will establish a better understanding of successful aging from the perspectives of Alaska Native elderly in Northwest Alaska. Being the Principal Investigator’s second research project on this topic, this project has the potential to inform future studies of indigenous successful aging, studies that allow the elderly themselves to subjectively define for themselves what it means to age well. In the spirit of community-based participatory research, several communities in Northwest Alaska reached out to the principal investigator, Dr. Jordan Lewis (Aleut, Native Village of Naknek), to request that similar research be conducted in their region. They did so after learning of his "Successful Aging Study," which was carried out in Bristol Bay Alaska from 2007-2009 and brought awareness of the value of positive, or generative, focused research with the elderly, highlighting their lessons and knowledge for healthy aging. This research study will consist of 60 qualitative in-depth interviews with Alaska Native elderly to establish an indigenous understanding of what successful aging means for Alaska Natives in Northwest Alaska and what is required to age in place. Interviews will be conducted with Alaska Native elderly and their family members in their own homes in five participating communities, as well as those who have relocated to the Quyanna Care facility in Nome, Alaska. Through these interviews the research team will explore the concept of successful aging and hope to gain a sense of Alaska Native beliefs about aging, what is required to age in place and how relocation to facilities for the elderly impacts views of successful aging. In the spirit of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR), participants will be engaged through the entire research process, from conception to data analysis. Meetings will be held in participating communities to review the findings and receive feedback; this will ensure the findings reflect the unique perspectives of the Elders, families, communities, and region. These findings will also be compared with the previous study on successful aging conducted in Bristol Bay to compare and contrast experiences of aging in these two rural regions of Alaska. This study will also explore what is required to age in place to reduce or eliminate the need for the elderly to relocate - taking with them the language, culture, and history of the community. Previous research by the PI has shown that enabling older Alaskan Native people to remain in their homes and communities contributes to the health and wellbeing of the communities. The research will shed additional light on what it means to age well in rural Alaska and determine what role their community plays in how Alaska Native people subjectively define their aging process. The significance of this research advances discovery through the establishment of a locally and culturally informed, Alaska Native, understanding of successful aging that builds on the PI's previous projects. In addition to contributing to the academic literature on successful aging, it promotes teaching and learning from the Elders on healthy aging in rural Alaska. It also educates researchers on the importance of CBPR and allowing the elderly to subjectively define their aging process, as well as engaging the local community throughout the entire research process, which promotes the coproduction of knowledge and bi-directional learning. This research project broadens the participation of underrepresented groups (Alaska Natives) and puts them on equal footing with the scientists in interpreting results and in presenting the results. This research also has the potential to contribute to the disciplines of anthropology, gerontology, community psychology, sociology, and others by paving the way for future researchers interested in indigenous aging. The research findings can influence health and social policy in Alaska and how healthcare and long-term support services are delivered to older residents in rural communities. The results of this research will be published and be disseminated for other researchers, gerontologists, anthropologists, and students to use with the permission of the tribal governing authorities, the Alaska Native participants and their communities. This study will also highlight that aging does not have to equal poor health and immobility; aging well should be a right that can be attained by everyone. This research has the potential to inform health professionals, policy advocates, local and state officials about the factors that determine whether or not rural Alaska communities are able to meet the needs of their elderly and enable them to live their remaining years as they may wish.