The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Elderhood: What Is It and Where Has It Gone?

Five years ago I attended a 5-day immersion with Stephen Jenkinson on elderhood. A few months earlier I had read his book Come Of Age.1 The experience and journey I took during those five days began me on an expedition of enquiry, reflection, and research over the following five years.

I attempted to discover what elderhood was, and where it had gone.

Where has it had gone? Surely it has not gone anywhere. Surely elderhood still exists in our culture?

Sadly not. Or, at least, there are so few elders in our culture2 that it is extremely difficult to find them and name them.

During my five years research one of the questions I kept asking was: can I identify elderhood in indigenous and nature-based cultures? Doing so, led me to ask whether I could identify the characteristics of elderhood in those culture that enabled elderhood to emerge and function? Asking those questions was enlightening. I found I could identify some characteristics, contrast them with concepts such as leadership or mentorship, and identify those characteristics that “our culture” is missing.

What follows is a brief article of a presentation I gave to an older group of men about one week ago.3

Characteristics of Elderhood

·       Community-focussed.

·       Builds wholeness within a community. Other similar concepts often display a healing emphasis. Elderhood may incorporate healing, but that is not its focus. It is focussed on the wholing of people and their relationship with the world and the cosmos.

·       Earth/cosmos centred. Other notions are usually person-centred and anthropocentric.

·       Facilitates ritual and ceremony for specific cultural reasons.

·       Spans 14 generations: Seven generations of ancestors plus seven generations of descendants. Most other similar notions (e.g. leadership, mentorship) are far more limited in time, often considering just one generation or, in the case of politicians, one term of office.

·       Elders are often found in Council, whereas similar concepts are usually displayed in individuals.

·       Elderhood is bestowed upon people. Whereas leadership, mentorship, management, or governance are positions that one can become. One does not seek elderhood, it is a gift (and a burden) that a society confers upon a person. This is done usually after many years training, often stretching back decades to teenage years. I have used the word bestow here deliberately. The etymology of the word is revealing. The stow part is from Old English meaning to put or place. The prefix be intensifies that. Be indicates completely, or thoroughly. Hence bestow can be defined as ‘to thoroughly place.’ Having elderhood bestowed upon someone indicates that others (usually the local community or tribe) are acting upon the recipient of the bestowal process. In contrast, becoming suggests that the person is assertively active in their own becoming.

·       Eldership is usually (but not always) place dependent. Elders have usually grown up within a locality, have explored that locality thoroughly, and have been trained in the lores and customs of the people of that locality.


Not all the above characteristics may be found in all indigenous conceptions of elderhood, yet these characteristics can be identified in many.

Where Has It Gone?

Reading the above characteristics, it becomes readily apparent that “our culture” is bereft of true elderhood. So, what has happened? Where have they gone? I gave this question some consideration also. This situation has not just arisen in recent times. The genesis of many of the causes can be traced back 10,000 years or more. Amongst a number of interlocking, interconnected, and mutually reinforcing reasons the following can be discerned:

·       Disconnection from nature,

·       Disconnection from each other,

·       Disconnection from ourselves,

·       Cultural belief (conscious or unconscious) that ‘the life of man (sic) is solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short.’ This well-known quote of Thomas Hobbes (17th century) is the epitome of the thinking that dominated European thinking during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. This view has entrenched itself into “our” cultural psyche so much that we hardly recognise it is there.

·       Loss of the sacred and spiritual.

·       Lack of pathways for transitioning from one life stage to the next.

·       Mechanistic, Cartesian, and linear “understanding” of the world/cosmos. Many of the thinkers during the Scientific Revolution often referred to the world and the cosmos as a clock – the ultimate mechanical metaphor.

·       Rejection of the Gaia Principle. The Gaia Principle proposes that the entire Earth is a single, synergistic, self-regulating, complex system that supports the conditions for life. It is named after the Greek goddess of the Earth.

·       Lack of Elders. Our culture is bereft of elders because of a lack of elders. Being bereft of elders means we will lack elders, and lacking elders… We are locked in a vicious cycle.


Where Does This Lead?

Elderhood is an emergent process. True elderhood arises out of a healthy and intact culture. Healthy elderhood is extremely difficult to surface when the sustaining culture is contaminated by many of the beliefs and mindsets described above.

If the cultural container is broken, then the worthiest function for would-be elders is to work towards repairing the culture.

Metaphorically, we could think of this work of reparation as like that of the Japanese art of kintsugi, wherein broken pottery is repaired by gluing the shattered pieces back together with a lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum.

This process does not seek to hide the cracks, but rather, to make them visible in such a way that the brokenness of the pottery is now shown to be beautiful.

It is up to all of us to pick up the pieces of our broken culture and, collectively, repair it, so that we can get 

from here                              

to here.


1. Stephen Jenkinson, Come Of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018.

2. By “our culture” I mean the culture that is largely western-style, European influenced, industrialised, and rich. Sadly, many indigenous and nature-based culture have been colonised (often brutally so) by this culture that this culture has now come to dominate the planet. The culture that had its origins in one part of the planet has now become tantamount to the global culture.

3. I will not elaborate on every point, otherwise this will end up being a read of well over one hour. However, I will attempt to elaborate briefly on the most salient ideas.

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