Gary Carlson

What or Who is an Elder?

Gary Carlson

We had an interesting discussion in my men’s group recently about what it means to be an elder—and what roles or responsibilities the term elder suggests.  Of course, there are a number of definitions in the dictionary for elder, including older, senior or aged, as well as a person who is wise and influential in a community.   Still, I was surprised by the “healthy elder” term some in our group preferred to use to define someone who took on a positive and leadership role in later life.  Alternatively, I believe that the term elder itself implies someone who is living their later years in a personally and societally beneficial way, without any clarifying adjectives being necessary.  Here are some of the reasons I have come to believe this over the past twenty or so years (especially in connection with my conscious aging work).

1. Reb Zalman, in the book From Age-ing to Sage-ing, makes the following differentiation between elders and other older persons:

“Elders go through a process of conscious and deliberate growth, becoming sages who are capable of guiding their families and communities with hard-earned wisdom.  The elderly, on the other hand, often survive into their eighth and ninth decades plagued by a gradually mounting sense of alienation, loneliness, and social uselessness.  Suffering from reduced capacities and an erosion of self-esteem, these people age without sage-ing.”

Sadly, we all have seen or known people who age without becoming elders.  That can be very sad and a real waste of human potential.

2. One of the most influential groups of older persons that I know in the world today calls itself “The Elders.” This group of roughly a dozen world leaders, both women and men, was begun by Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others in 2007.  They have been using their wisdom, prestige and leadership for the past decade to work toward solutions to some of the world’s great social problems, including ethical leadership and cooperation, conflict and global peace, universal health care, climate change, refugees and migration, and access to justice.  While they have not definitively solved all these problems, I believe these persons truly reflect, in their work and in their examples, the meaning of the term elder, and they give each of us guidance for our own elder years.  Jimmy Carter is one current member of The Elders whom we all know.

3. There is a rich historical tradition to the term “elder” among indigenous communities (also in some church communities). Most indigenous peoples have as part of their tradition a rite of passage for their older members leading to elder status (in some communities this includes women, in others only men).  In some African tribes that I’ve encountered, the passage into elderhood occurs at age 50.  There is an expectation that those inducted into the society of elders will then use their wisdom, gathered from long life experience, in beneficial ways for the community.  Thus, the leadership of many indigenous communities is delegated to the elders of that group. The photo at the top of this blog shows the senior Hadza elder, Kampala, taken on my trip to Tanzania in 2006.

Importantly, in the indigenous communities, there is an expectation that a man (or woman) will gladly and proudly take on the mantle of leadership when they become an elder, and not simply allow themselves to grow old or lazy (and decline mentally and physically), as we in the west too often observe with some of our older colleagues.  That is a difference in expectation that I believe does not necessarily reflect well on our western society.

Continuing the examples of indigenous communities, we have had in northeast America the example of the five tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, in which the Clanmothers (the Grandmothers) chose the Council of Chiefs who then made the governing decisions for their tribes.  Of course, these elders did not make those decisions alone, but in consultation with other members of the tribe.  That  exemplifies another one of the traits of an elder as leader—the ability to listen carefully to others, and to learn from their shared wisdom.

I’ll conclude this exploration of the meaning of elders and elderhood with a definition of an elder created by a group of wise older folks living in a retirement home in California.  It reflects what I hope most people will aspire to, as they enter into the second half of life and consider their future path.  Barry Barkin was a leader of this group when the definition was written, probably about 40 years ago.

Definition of an Elder

Barry Barkin

The Live Oak Project

El Sobrante, CA

An elder is a person

Who is still growing, still a learner,

Still with potential and

Whose life continues to have within it

Promise for and

Connection to the future.

An elder is still in pursuit of

Happiness, joy and pleasure,

And her or his birthright to these

Remains intact.

Moreover, an elder is a person

Who deserves respect and honor and

Whose work it is to synthesize wisdom

From long life experience and

Formulate this into a legacy for

Future generations.

Gary A. Carlson, PhD, is a retired research scientist and technical manager whose volunteer work is now focused on organizational activities related to Sage-ing/Conscious Aging.   Gary is  a Certified Sage-ing Leader and a Sage-ing Circle Facilitator, and is a co-founder and leader of Sage-ing International and of the Conscious Aging Network of New Mexico, now a Chapter of SI.  Gary has received the Reb Zalman Leadership Award and the Sage-ing Pioneer Award from SI and is also honored to be a member of SI’s Council of Honored Sages.  He and his wife Charlotte live in Albuquerque, NM.