“the presence of elders in a culture turns out not to derive from an aging population. We’d be awash in wisdom if it did.”1
David Suzuki (the eminent geneticist and environmentalist) adds to this when he says:
“Native cultures fully recognise that all elderly people have lessons to offer based on their life experiences. But they also realize that only a few have the specialised knowledge of the cosmos that uniquely equips them to provide wise counsel to the community and the world.”2
So, what might distinguish an elder from an older? One characteristic associated with older age is that of retirement. Retirement is viewed largely as the prerogative of older age,
There has been much written about retirement, with much advice and tips on how to enjoy retirement (older age.) Four factors are often cited as helping to ensure a happy olderness. These four factors can be useful in elucidating the similarities and differences between older and elder.
Taking care of one’s health is crucial to enjoying olderhood. Most retirement counsellors and advisers recommend active exercise of at least three times per week. Advice is also given on the types of foods best consumed by those of an older age. Regular health check-ups by a GP are suggested. Basically, the advice comes down to: take care of your body.
An elder, however, takes in a bigger picture and considers the health of the entire planet (and cosmos as Suzuki alludes to.) An elder recognises that one’s personal health is inextricably linked with the health of the planet. Earth is understood to be a single system – the Gaia Principle – in which everything is linked to everything else. Everything is inter-dependent.
Older people are advised to manage their finances to ensure an adequate income in their retirement. Indeed, a cursory glance at the retirement advisory sites would suggest that finances, money, investments etc are the number one retirement planning priority for an older person. “Putting aside for old age,” or “creating a nest egg for retirement” seem to be two of the catchphrases that are used to promote sufficient wealth to live off in the retirement years.
An elder views wealth in quite different terms. For an elder it is of little comfort if the accumulation of wealth has come at the cost of damaging the earth or its inhabitants along the way. An elder is less likely to ask themselves if they have accumulated sufficient wealth for old age. They are more likely to ask if they have given back more to the earth than they have taken.
Having supportive friends and family in one’s social circle is cited as very important to how well one is likely to enjoy retirement. We all know how important the sense of belonging and companionship is to our mental well-being. In older age this becomes even more important as other sources of self-worth (e.g., work, or social standing) become lessened.
For an elder, relationships are also fundamental, although an elder is more inclined to extend that circle of relationship to the more-than-human world. The role of the elder in this relationship is one which “assigns human beings enormous responsibility for sustaining harmonious relations within the whole natural world rather than granting them unbridled license to follow personal or economic whim.”2
Almost from the time we are born (in western-styled societies at least) we are imbued with the notion that we must have goals. As youngsters we are continually asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” At school we are told that we must have a goal in life, and education enables that goal to be realised. At work we are exhorted to climb the corporate ladder or move to a higher paying/higher status job. It seems that upon retirement the same encouragement to have a goal (or goals) is made. In retirement it is advisable, so the advisers say, to have goals, to maintain some sort of interest or hobby.
An elder, too, may find themselves with some goal, although often the achievement of the goal is of far lesser importance than the journey. Furthermore, the goal may be for something that, once completed, the elder will obtain no benefit, nor well-being from. The distinguished Bengali poet, philosopher, and elder, Rabindranath Tagore, expressed this idea well:
“The one who plants trees, knowing that he or she will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.”
Or, as Stephen Jenkinson eloquently puts it:
“The elder serves best by toasting the coming of the next day while he or she stands there at five minutes to his or her personal midnight.”1
What these four facets essentially tell us is that an elder takes a wider, more holistic, cosmic view than does someone who has arrived at old age simply by negotiating many years. An elder is most likely to have begun their journey towards elderhood many many years before they even get close to old age. Elderhood does not simply a cloak that is put on upon the attaining of a required age. An elder weaves, stitches, and darns the cloak of elderhood for many years before the local community tells him or her that it is time to don the cloak.
1. Stephen Jenkinson, Come Of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018.
2. Peter Knudson & David Suzuki, Wisdom of the Elders, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, Australia, 1992.