Older adults are referred to in many ways.
We are said to be “retired,” which is a very broad category and not necessarily correct, as many people of all ages can be retired or not working. It does group us, but more with a financial focus. Then, there are “seniors.” This term is used by politicians and government, and by many stores, movie theaters and the Durango Community Recreation Center, again, mostly for financial reasons. Are the senior discounts worth the psychological cost of aging?
I hear “geezer” occasionally. It feels more humorous than disparaging, and related more to men for some reason. I know someone who considers being called a geezer athlete a compliment and something to strive for.
There is “elderly,” which is loaded with connotations of being out-of-date, irrelevant and invisible. I hate this one.
Then, thank heavens, there is “Elder,” with a capital “E”. This term is also loaded, but with a sense of dignity, wisdom and maturity. Elder connotes a quieter mind, more discerning of what matters and what does not, a weighing of the meaning and scope of things. Older folks we think of as Elders might represent a depth of humanity or some quality of kindness or generosity that models something for us to emulate in ourselves.
Of course, this is all semantics, and we bring a host of projections to each as a title. However, without clear road maps to follow in this stage of our lives, I’m finding I need a concept or image to guide me. Elder represents the qualities I’m looking for as I age. It’s more of a way of engaging and perceiving and being with myself, than describing what I’m out there doing.
Elders have been respected and revered in many other cultures and times in history. In Ram Dass’ description of India’s four stage of life, the years from 60 on are for giving up your responsibilities. Freedom. Society supports you because it needs the wisdom you have to offer. Also, honor and respect for elders was much more prevalent in the extended family scenario of the past.
Our culture has a problem with aging. We are a society that values materials, and people in terms of what we produce, achieve and consume, instead of cultivating the quality of our being. Independence and individuality has disconnected us from our deeper being, our family, our community and nature.
The term Elder speaks to me in that it contains certain experiences that if we’re old enough, we have all lived through. They may include: anger at the cruelty and ignorance we see in the world and our helpless to erase it; regret for suffering we’ve caused and fear of our own suffering; the weakening and demise of our own bodies; grief for loved ones we have lost to various diseases and death; and anticipation of our own death.
These experiences mature us and make us look more deeply at the meaning of life. We can turn toward these times and engage with them as best we can. When we meet them, work with them and accept them, they can lead us to a sense of opening and freedom, and to a more authentic life. We can be more present with these years and live life simply for life itself. We can be grateful for this precious and impermanent remainder of time we may have.
Elder symbolizes this depth to me. Each of us walks this journey differently; we all have different ways of working with aging. If we can resonate with this insight and richness in ourselves while we still can, perhaps we can be looked at as true Elders.
Our whole planet is in desperate need of wise, compassionate, courageous people of real maturity. In the next few decades, about 2 billion people older than 60 will inhabit Earth, that’s one in every four. Imagine what it would be like if even a fair-sized population of us could be called Elders, with developed wisdom, generosity, long-sighted vision and love for all. We could change the world!
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.