What I Learned from Two Old Women

Occasionally you read a book that stays with you long after you close the cover for the last time and place the book on the shelf (or delete it from your reader!).  So it is with a small volume I read with my book group not too long ago, Two Old Women by Velma Wallis.

A poignant account of aging is found in this short but powerful book. Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska, it’s the inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine. The chief regrets having to leave the old women behind, as do the families of the elders, but the decision is made that they must be abandoned so the others can move on.

What happens next should encourage all of us who aren’t as young and capable as we once were. “We have learned much during our long lives,” said one of the women named Sa’. “Yet there we were in our old age, thinking that we had done our share in life. So we stopped, just like that. No more working like we used to, even though our bodies are still healthy enough to do a little more than we expect of ourselves.”

Her slightly older friend, Ch’idzigyaak, listened carefully to her friend’s revelation as to why they were left behind.

“Two old women,” Sa’ continued. “They complain, never satisfied. We talk of no food, and of how good it was in our days when it really was no better. We think that we are too old. Now, because we have spent so many years convincing the younger people that we are hopeless, they believe that we are no longer of use to this world.” And then she lays down a challenge for herself and her friend: “If we are going to die anyway, let us die trying!”

By the end of the book, the two old friends have done more than try—they have survived and survived beautifully. So successful are they in employing all the wisdom and skills they accumulated over their many decades that, when they are eventually reunited with the tribe, they have pelts and food enough to share with those who walked off and left them to die in the cold!

The lesson is one we can apply to helping our elders. Without unmercifully nagging them into doing everything they once could do, we need to gently encourage them to do that which they still can. How often we hear of elders dying shortly after retiring simply because they felt their life was over. Likewise, older adults can simply give up once they move into an assisted living facility if those around them treat them as if they can’t do anything for themselves anymore. Better to err on the side of encouragement than discouragement. Wait until you are sure help is needed before jumping in to button a blouse, tie a shoe, or make a bed.

And the lesson for those of us who aren’t quite there yet? Stop moaning about what we can’t do as well anymore and keep doing everything we can! Then, like the characters in the Alaskan legend, we’ll do far more than survive–we’ll survive beautifully!


  1. A perfect message for me today, Nancy.
    I’m with my mom in Fort Scott. It’s hot outside, yet she wears a sweater inside (while I sit near the air conditioning vent and hot-flash miserably even with a fan pointed directly at me). Mom has broken off an eye tooth, which supposedly at almost 94 isn’t all that uncommon.
    The dentist is glad there’s no nerve response to the tooth, as pulling it would be very hard on her, crowning it is out of the question, and he can’t apply a temporary cover because if it comes off while she sleeps she will choke. So many no-no-no answers.
    When I fed her dinner last night, talking to her about the tooth and the lack of options, she finally shrugged and said, “I’ll chew on the other side.” That’s my mom, bless her heart…and her spirit and ability to compensate!
    Then today I read your wonderful, inspiring blog. Always a helpful message at just the right time. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Marylin, and I’m sure sorry to hear about your mom’s tooth. It’s that resilience that gets them to the older years, but it sure can be hard to watch all they have to endure. She’s blessed to have you–stay cool!!

  2. OK, I MUST get this book and read it now. Thanks for sharing this Nancy. How inspiring. It all of these years, I am sure how my Grandma keeps going is because of her sense of purpose. I can not loose that while we are in this season to have her in our family.

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