Several weeks ago I saw a gaggle of geese flying south. It seemed to me that the end of August was a little early for them. They made their presence obvious with loud honking while flying in that familiar V shape.
I learned early on from my Elders that the sight of geese making a fast trip south at that time of year meant that a cold snap was on the way. Sure enough, several days later in early September, the temperature dipped to freezing. All this didn’t mean that winter had arrived but it did signal the start of the cold season again.
As the cold weather arrived, I felt the change in my joints. Every time a cool breeze blew I thought about how that time of year also brought about the aches and pains of age in older people.
On certain days, even though I am only 30 years old, I can feel the stiffness in my bones. Nothing is ever too painful or debilitating, but I get the feeling that it may be the start of aches and pains for my future. On cold, wet days I can feel my knees become restless and aching for movement. Only when I start walking, working or at the very least standing on my feet do I feel better.
I like to imagine the human body working like a motorized engine or car. If you leave it sitting too long, things will start to rust. However, it is just a matter of a little bit of movement every once in a while to keep things running for a long time.
The start of these aches and pains come from a hard life of living in the north. Our diets were not the best so our bodies never received the proper nutrition during our development. Nutritious food and fresh produce is hard for us to come by and it is easier and cheaper to buy canned goods or highly preserved foods. This may not affect us early on but the food we eat or even the nutrients we don’t consume can affect our health as we get older.
Our health in the north is also affected by the extreme weather we endure. As children we played in the cold, no matter how severe it was. As teenagers and young adults, it was normal for my brothers and I to spend hours outside on a freezing cold day. We dressed warm but at the end of a long work day in the freezing weather, you could feel cold penetrate deep inside your body and into your bones.
When we spent time on the land, living in the cold was a normal part of our life. We were always cold to some degree no matter how well we dressed. When it is minus 40 degrees nothing can keep a person warm out on the land. When you live in this world, you simply grow to accept the fact that you will always be cold no matter what you do. The trick is to keep warm enough to survive and to make sure you don’t take too many risks that can strand you in severe cold weather.
Most people know from experience that life in the north affects our health. The arthritis we experience is a constant reminder. The Cree take pride in being able to survive for long periods of severe cold.
The fact is, however, that we pay for it with our aching and stiff joints. Most of the Elders I know up north have developed some form of arthritis. Whenever I hear them talk about this disease they remember stories of how hard life was on the land in the cold and wet. Now in most First Nations in the north, arthritis among the elderly is almost an epidemic.
I witnessed my mother Susan suffer the debilitating affects of arthritis. I can remember her not long ago as a very active, hard working and strong woman who was capable of handling nine children, household chores and so much cooking on a daily basis.
Over the years I watched arthritis take over her body to the point where there were times she was not able to rise from bed in the morning. Thankfully, in the past few years, she has had many treatments, received different types of medication and undergone several operations to deal with her arthritis. She is better these days than she has been in years.
Primary forms of arthritis are: Osteoarthritis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Septic arthritis, Gout and pseudogout, Juvenile idiopathic arthritis, Still’s disease and Ankylosing spondylitis. Treatment for arthritis can include physical and occupational therapy, medications, joint replacement surgery and exercise and weight control plans. For more information on arthritis you can go to www.arthritis.ca