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Part II Folklife and Creative Aging Programs 175 Elderhood Arts Kathleen Mundell Born in Motahkmikuk, Indian Township, Maine, Molly Neptune Parker is one of the most gifted basketmakers of the Passamaquoddy tribe. Now in her eighties, she has taught generations of Passamaquoddy tribal members including many of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. As both a keeper and a generator of Passamaquoddy culture, Molly Neptune Parker exemplifies what it means to be an elder. As she describes it: “Basket making is an art that I believe I was born to do, much as my ancestors have done for thousands of years. I honor that legacy and believe I have a responsibility to continue it” (fig. 9.1). In many traditional cultures, the term elder confers a position of knowledge and authority, as elders take on their unique role of guiding and mentoring the next generation. But for those of us who have not benefitted from a culture that values or even recognizes the idea of elderhood, the process of growing older can be overwhelming. With its emphasis on physical and mental decline, the contemporary Western view of aging is often looked at as a problem: “Young is beautiful . Old is ugly. This attitude stems from a stereotyping deeply ingrained in our culture and in our economy. . . . The cruelest aspect of this cultural attitude is the elder’s vulnerability to the stereotype. Some feel themselves to be unattractive, dull and quite often, unlovable, and this depressing outlook only aggravates the problem. One response is to avoid looking or acting your own age at all costs. Another attitude is to let go, renouncing even rewarding interests and pleasures as unseemly. The acceptance of the stereotype then actualizes the stereotype itself” (Erikson, Erickson, and Kivnick 1986, 301). In contrast is the recognition of elderhood as a distinct and significant phase of life—one that affords older adults new opportunities to take on new roles as teachers, grandparents, mentors, and advocates for the future: “By relegating this 9 The Expressive Lives of Elders (2018): 175–185, DOI: 10.2979/expressivelivesofelders.0.0.10 176 | The Expressive Lives of Elders growing segment of the population to the onlooker bleachers of our society, we have classified them as unproductive, inadequate, and inferior. . . . Taking care of them in innumerable ways is being responsible. Entertaining them with bingo games and concerts is, however, patronizing. Surely, the search for some way of including what they can still contribute to the social order in a way befitting their capacities is appropriate and in order” (Erikson, Erikson, and Kivnick 1986, 301). Elderhood is also a phase of life in which older adults get a chance to tap into their life experiences and creatively tell their stories. As folklorists Mary Hufford , Marjorie Hunt, and Steve Zeitlin (1987, 41) suggest, “No matter how it comes about, telling one’s story seems an essential part of being an elder, and culture provides an array of expressive forms for putting one’s story forth.” The process of looking inward is a natural part of growing older. As psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1982, 65) suggests, exploring a deeper sense of self is part of this stage of life, what he refers to as the point of integrity in which “we have come to the point of being able to understand our place in the world and the life we have lived in it.” This life chapter, explains Erikson (1950, 268) is “where one can look back at life and accept it as it has come to be.” Such acceptance is part of becoming an elder, freeing us to serve others and giving back all that our own life experience has given us. Fig. 9.1. Acadian Hunter by Tom Cote. Photograph by Peter Dembski. Elderhood Arts | 177 The journey of self-exploration often expresses itself in creative ways. Creativity comes from the Latin creatus, which means “to have grown.” Central to this idea is the recognition of how creativity affects the aging brain. More than two decades ago, Gene Cohen, renowned geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Center for Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University, suggested that creativity was like “chocolate” for the brain. Cohen’s landmark research pointed to the positive impact of creativity on older adults’ physical, mental, and emotional health. He coined the term creative aging to describe how creativity, in all its multifaceted forms, can not only help sharpen cognitive skills but also further the aging brain’s ability to grow, change...


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