serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

Old isn’t Elder

Posted by Jim Selman on 09/27/06

The word “Elder” is becoming the vogue term for people over 60 or, in some cases, even younger. I think it is a mistake as well as inaccurate to make “Elder” synonymous with having reached a certain age. First of all, being an Elder is a role, not a fact of biology. Moreover, it is a role that exists in the context of community. The word itself distinguishes a relationship between the Elder and members of their community.

I see several criteria that must be met before one can assume the role of Elder.

The first is that the individual must be a person whose life and presence is worthy of respect by others. I can’t imagine a criminal or an insane person being deemed an Elder in the context of most societies.

Second is that the Elder must be someone who has assumed a level of responsibility and concern for the community he or she serves. A person who basically doesn’t give a damn or is cynical isn’t likely to be related to as an Elder.

Finally, I think that the Elder must be engaged in active and relevant conversations concerning the affairs and issues of the community. A spectator cannot be an effective or respected Elder.

I note that we are appending “Elder” as an adjective to many other terms as an indication of age. We have ‘elderbloggers’, ‘elder statesmen’, ‘elder citizens’— I’ve even begun to hear the state of ‘older age’ being called ‘elderhood’. I think it’s important that we use the word ‘elder’ with care, so that we don’t lose the distinction and the understanding that one earns the role of Elder and that no one is entitled to it by virtue of their age alone.

I am of the view that we need Elders today. We need people who have committed themselves to serving their communities as teachers, mentors, coaches and ‘keepers’ of the stories that maintain and enrich our values and culture over time. We need people who’ve earned the right to speak and to be listened to with a deep regard for their experience and with the confidence that their motives are always for the good of the larger community.

I don’t think Elders are infallible, but I believe that anyone worthy of that role will be the first to admit mistakes.

At 64, I am old enough to be an Elder. Today I am declaring my commitment to being of service to my community and the world for the rest of my life.

Now call me Elder.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to “Old isn’t Elder”

  1. Tom D'Aquanni said

    It occurs to me, upon reading your piece on “Older is not Elder”, that “Younger Does Not Preclude Elder, Either”. People can, and are, holders of the space of community, as well as shapers of the future of our civilization beyond their years, independent of one linear years.

    Respect for another’s life is also not solely, or even essentially a function of their years, but of the “seniority” with which one pursues one’s interests inside a commitment to balancing those self-interests with the well-being of those around him or her. That mindset is what makes one an elder, a mature, wise being.

  2. joared said

    You might want to read some of the earlier pieces on Ronni Bennett’s blog “Time Goes By” where the meaning of elder as she proposes has previously been extensively discussed. She is very clear that her view is that the term elder is not specifically and only age-related — as you say, “no one is entitled to it by virtue of their age alone.”

  3. shaehadden said

    I agree with Tom about Elder not precluding younger. Historically, it was only people with lots of life experience who could ‘graduate’ to this status…In our times, the ability to experience life fully and broadly in a short period of time is available to many.

    So if we accept your criteria for elderhood (to be respected within the community, to have assumed a level of responsibility for that community, and to be engaged and active in that regard), we should consider the existence of ‘young’ Elders…

    Perhaps there needs to be more than one level…as in young adult and mature adult…perhaps ‘junior Elders’ and ‘senior Elders’?

  4. […] I wrote in Old isn’t Elder that being an Elder is a role granted by a community and not an entitlement of longevity. What I didn’t say is that Elders are courageous in that they have declared a willingness to keep on giving until their last day, regardless of their circumstances. They are willing to ‘let go’ of the past and relate to the future as a constantly expanding space of possibility and opportunity to contribute. […]

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