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What the Elderly Are Really Capable of Doing

As a baby boomer, Denise and millions of others are becoming senior citizens. She explores what it means to be over 60 today.

Native American Woman

what-the-elderly-are-really-capable-of-doing

The Elderly

The Elderly are capable of more than you would think.

I just finished this short book called Two Old Women. The book has been around for a while. It was published in 2004. Before you get offended by the title, it is the term referred to them over and over by their tribe. The book was based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed down from many generations from mothers to daughter of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska. It actually is a charming story of what the tribe thought the women were capable of (nothing) and what they eventually proved to be capable of.

Two Old Women

Kiowa girl and brother.

Kiowa girl and brother.

Native American Legend

I just love Native American legends and lore. It must go back to my roots because family legend has it that I have a Cherokee ancestor, although no one has been able to prove it quantitatively. Still, there is something appealing about living off the land, surviving the raw wilderness and enjoying its beauty. This story has all that and much more.

The two women are 75 and 80 years old. They had begun to do more complaining than helping and the younger members of the tribe, who called themselves The People, had been seeing to their needs for some time when the famine came. They felt aches and pains and didn’t mind letting everyone know about them. The young ones would build their fire, pack their tent when it was time to go, bring them food and sew clothes for them. They considered themselves and revered and honored elders of The People. So it must have come as a surprise when the elders and the chief had a meeting concerning them. The brutal winter famine had left them very weak. The young men who hunted for the tribe were fed first so that they could remain strong and continue hunting. But they had not had much success all year finding game, mostly moose and caribou. The People were nomads following the caribou, their main food source when they moved for the winter. The famine had made even the caribou herds thin out and become hard to follow. So the rations given to the rest of the tribe had been cut for some time. This is when they decided to leave the two old women behind when they moved on. No one would help the women pack or feed them anymore. They were to be left to die.

what-the-elderly-are-really-capable-of-doing
what-the-elderly-are-really-capable-of-doing
what-the-elderly-are-really-capable-of-doing

Left in Stunned Silence

As I get older I feel that way sometimes. The young people I helped raise have lives of their own and are too busy to visit as often anymore. I have more aches and pains than I used to and my mobility is limited. Physically, I move slower and should be eating less but I don’t. Instead, I complain a little more than I should. I really related to the two old women in the story.

One of the women was named after a Chickadee and the other named after a Star. Before leaving them behind, Chickadee’s grandson secretly left a knife for them and her daughter left a moose hide. The other old woman had no children. After the tribe had been gone for a couple of hours and they sat there in stunned silence they began talking to each other. They really didn’t know each other very well. They had had no real opportunity to converse before this time, but now they were all each of them had. It was Star who decided that if she was going to die, she wasn’t going to wait for it to come to her. She would die trying to survive instead. She convinced Chickadee to do the same. It was already Fall and there was light snow on the ground. And so they packed up the one tent left for them and decided on a plan. Star remembered a place near a river where The People had camped many decades ago, where the fish were plentiful. They knew they couldn’t hunt moose or caribou but they could fish. They could even survive on fish. So with a plan and a direction, they began walking.

what-the-elderly-are-really-capable-of-doing

Aches and Pains Isolate Me

I think when I’m really hurting and aching, I forget that I have more than the physical in my favor. I have my mind and my experience. I have seen things that the young ones haven’t. I have skills. I have ingenuity. I have the benefit of years behind me.

This part of the story so hit home with me. The women began walking and camped when darkness came making fire with the embers they were smart enough to bring with them. They were sore and hurting but they got up the next morning and began again, this time moving slower but determined. They set snares using rawhide strips from the moose hide left by Chickadee’s daughter and caught rabbits, as so they had food. The third morning they were even more uncomfortable than the second and wanted to stay where they were but they knew that they would die if they didn’t get to where they were going. The snows were coming.

Aged Hands

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Competing with the bears for fish

Competing with the bears for fish

Camaraderie That Comes With Age

It took 5 days to get to the ancient campsite near the river that Star remembered. Just as she remembered, it was alive with small game and fish. They began right away catching fish and drying it for the long winter ahead of them. They set snares along the rabbit runs and even caught some squirrels. Each night they would sew the skins into slippers and mittens for themselves, as well as robes and blankets. They probably had to piece more together than if they had caribou skins but they made it work for them. And so gathering nuts, fish, rabbits, and squirrels, they managed to live through that first winter. The long nights together caused them to become better acquainted with each other, telling stories of their childhood and young wifehood. They became devoted to each other like sisters.

There is a camaraderie that comes with age, I think. We understand each other without having to say where we ache or hurt. We know that each has experienced love and pain, joy and sorrow. I love my senior citizen friends. It is like we are sisters somehow. We understand when the other says they are concerned about choices their son or daughter is making. We know we never stop caring about our grown children, even though there is nothing that can be done but waits and finds out what they choose to do next. We feel that the end is closer than the beginning. We don’t often talk about that but we all know it inherently. I remember one of my lovely senior sisters went through a cancer scare and came out the other side of treatment with a clean bill of health. We only smiled when she decided not to waste any more time wishing she had done this or that. She got out her bucket list and began checking things off. Every year she takes the bungee jump at the fairgrounds. Last year she turned 90 years young and still went for her bungee jump.

Stories of Legends

Her whole life written in her hands.

Her whole life written in her hands.

Broken Trust

When the spring came, the two old women began right away stockpiling dried fish and food for the following winter. I think they both had in their minds that you never know what may happen. One of them may become sick or injured or even die and the other one would need plenty to live off of if the famine became worse. That Spring and Summer they battled many things; biting flies, bears wanting their fish, storing their dried food where it would not be disturbed or robbed by animals. Their constant fear was that The People that abandoned them may come back, find them, kill them and rob their stockpile of food. Or worse, kill them for other purposes. They both remembered the stories of how The People had resorted to cannibalism when famines in the past got really bad. They were their tribe but there was a breach of trust and they just didn’t know what may befall them next.

It is sad when trust is lost in the very family you love and thought you knew. I went through something years ago where members of my family confronted me with something that they thought had happened but they were wrong. It was embarrassing and humiliating. There was a breach of trust that came from it and I have never felt welcome, truly welcome again. They have said it isn’t like that, come back, we love you, etc. But I will probably always remember the things they said about me that night… Things they thought about me… It still hurts. I can only imagine what the two old women felt having their own tribe, their family members turn their backs and leave them to die.

Elderly But Not Useless

what-the-elderly-are-really-capable-of-doing

Winter Again

When the winter came again, the two old women were so secure they didn’t have to work very hard at all. After checking their traps every day, they had the day to roam and explore. That is how they found the field of cranberries to add to their stockpile. There were so many sweet stories they told and the experiences they had, you will have to read it for yourself. But finally, The People came back to the place where they left the two old women. They expected to find bones or traces but there was nothing. The chief had felt very badly about leaving them and had second thoughts about it. They had begun to starve and many of the tribe had died of starvation. Many children died. It had not been a good year for them. So the chief called his best trackers and asked them to see if they could find where the two old women had gone. If they found them they were to tell them the chief guaranteed their safety and wanted them to come home.

What took the two old women 5 days, took the trackers only one day. They reached the place but couldn’t find the women. The two younger trackers felt sure the women could not have survived and that they should go back, but the older tracker, who was 65, decided to look further. He noticed that the trees were missing some bark, which was a tactic of The People to make baskets. They walked into the woods away from the river and the older tracker smelled the faint smell of smoke. He called the other two trackers to him and they smelled it too. Now he felt sure the two old women were here somewhere, but their camp was secure and so hidden that even the experienced tracker could not find it. So he called them.

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Found

In their snug tent, camouflaged by trees and brush, the two old women heard their names called in the night. They were scared and thought to stay quiet but Star felt sure they would be found. So they came out of their tent with spears ready. When the two old women came out with spears drawn ready to attack the experienced trackers, the older one was amused. He told them what the chief said. He told them that The People had suffered and many children had died. The two old women whispered to each other and decided to allow the men into their tent. That’s when they noticed that the men looked hungry and thin. They fed them and gave them mittens and slippers they had sewn. They had made more than they could use anyway. The men noticed that not only had the two old women survived but that they seemed healthy and well fed too. That’s when Star decided to tell them about the supply of food. Chickadee was afraid at first but Star convinced her that they had plenty and that it was the right thing to do to share. They told the men to go back and get the tribe and bring them here. They said that they could camp near the river and only a few would be allowed to come into the woods where the camp was. They still didn’t trust the tribe. They sent the men off the next day with food for the tribe.

Me knitting for my grandkids.

Me knitting for my grandkids.

I May Be Old But Not Useless

I think that it amazes and pleases me that in the end the two old women, assumed to be good for nothing, were the ones that fed the tribe through that terrible famine. They fed and clothed them the entire tribe. When we get older, we aren’t useless unless we decide we are. We actually have to give up trying to be truly useless. When we want to, we can be the support for more than ourselves and our posterity, but also the community around us. It is no wonder that this amazing story has been retold for generations. It made me rethink myself and my plight as I get older and weaker. But not useless.

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