This is a Call to Action to the baby boomer generation.
Over the last five years, I have been blessed to sit in many cross-generational circles. I have attended “elder initiation ceremonies” with hundreds of guests. These opportunities have helped me understand better the challenges that face aging adults, and they have provided insight about what our society needs from folks as they age. I have been struck time and again by the hesitation of older people to claim the role of elder, either because of a fear of becoming old (and thus irrelevant) or a fear of being so audacious in claiming a wisdom they feel they lack.
I suppose my impatience is rooted in my youth. From my perspective, my generation and the generations that follow are inheriting a very challenged planet, and we need all the help we can get. So again: This is a Call to Action. If youíre over 50, please step forward and
fake it until you make it as an Elder.
What might that mean? Here are some of the things Iíve learned over the last five years.
Share your stories and share your wisdom
I hear resistance from many of you baby boomers to call yourselves elders, because you donít feel youíve attained enough wisdom to qualify as an elder. It is as though you believe you need to know what youíre doing to be an elder. But the challenge is that our cultural models for how to truly be an elder no longer exist, so how are you going to learn?
This is a perfect task for your generation; youíve been doing exactly this — pushing the cultural edges — since you came along. You emerged into a world of values that you didnít share, and you pushed hard to create something new. Throughout your teens, twenties, thirties, and beyond, your passion for creating new forms led to a lot of mistakes and failures. Itís also led to a huge number of inspiring successes. Those of us coming into our prime adult life are grateful for both the new paths youíve blazed — AND all the failures you had from which we can learn. We donít always know the questions to ask. We need your guidance! Please share it. You donít need to know what it means to be an elder. Itís fine if you learn as you go. Youíll make horrible blunders along the way. But hopefully by the time youíre done, my generation will have a road map.
Give us space to lead and to make mistakes
If you want more than that, I can tell you what I want personally. I donít know if itís shared by my peers, but I think it is. Being an elder is about giving up center stage and allowing those of us following in your footsteps to begin to take leadership. I often see a hesitation to step back among aging baby boomers. I believe that the root of this hesitation is fear of becoming irrelevant. But itís couched in very different clothing. Usually, itís dressed up in statements like, “Iíve been doing this for 30 years. Iíll do it better than someone whoís just learning. We want the work to be the best it can be, right?” Thatís all well and good — until one day you up and die. I realize that I have a lot to learn, and Iíll stumble and make mistakes as I learn things that by now come naturally to you. Nonetheless, itíll be far easier for me to learn while youíre here to answer questions and offer guidance.
I know thatís a far more awkward role for you, because it means you donít really have anything to
do. But I can tell you that if you open your time up to eldering, there will be plenty of young people banging down your door for guidance. And then your only task is to simply
One of the greatest gifts you can offer as an elder is the act of blessing. When I reflect on the mentorship I received from Stan Crow, the founder of Rite of Passage Journeys and my mentor and elder for 18 years, his greatest contribution to me was that he blessed me. I inherited his organization from him, and he graciously stepped out of the way almost immediately, despite the fact that he had poured 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears into the program, and I clearly had absolutely no idea what I was doing. He let me lead, he let me make mistakes. And when I didnít know what to do, I would knock on his door. He would invite me in, give me a cup of tea, listen to me share my concerns and questions. And then heíd smile, and tell me I was doing a great job. Heíd tell me that it sounded like I knew just what to do. He offered me his blessing, and it gave me an enormous amount of confidence. I believe that he made me a far stronger leader by doing this than by telling me what I should do — even if he probably had far better ideas than those I proposed.
When he died last year, and I couldnít ask him for his advice, I could still call on him to offer me a blessing. And I knew just what Stanís blessing sounded like.
Take care of yourself
Randy Morris, Director of Spiritual Studies at Antioch University Seattle, had a large public event to mark his 60th birthday and initiation into elderhood. One of his students, Elizabeth Zinda, was invited to speak for all of his students about what they would ask for him as he enters into his elder years. Elizabeth said many wise things. But the moment I will always remember was when she looked Randy straight in the eye, and said, “Take care of yourself. Take care of your body. Take care of your health. Because what we need most from you is that youíre able to live as long as you can.” This may be the most important principle of elderhood there is, and also likely the hardest.
Teach us how to care for you
Several years ago, at a large cross-cultural and cross-generational gathering, I watched as a woman my age stood up, walked across the room, offered an older man a chair to sit in while he was speaking. She said “Excuse me, elder, I should know better than to let you stand there without offering you a seat. My apologies.” He warmly accepted the seat.
I learned a lot from the younger woman in this encounter about what it means to confer respect upon our elders with simple, caring gestures of kindness. I learned a lot from the older man about accepting this kind of care and respect.
The situation could have gone differently. The older man could have said, “Thank you, Iím happy to stand,” or said, “I can take care of myself.” Thank goodness he didnít. Whenever an elder allows him or herself to be cared for, they offer a gift to the community. Personally, I find that when an older person is willing to accept small gestures of kindness from me, it makes me a kinder, more caring person in general. I feel better about myself, and more aware of the people around me.
Iíve observed this in how my husband related to his grandmother as well. She passed away last year, almost 90. What made me fall in love with him, more than anything, was watching the patient attentiveness he showed to his grandmother, helping her out of the car, holding an umbrella over her as we walked, doing small tasks around her apartment to make her life easier. When older people accept this kind of care with grace, it makes us all better people.
But I think many young people donít really know how to offer kindness, care, and true respect. Honestly, itís not something weíre taught. So thatís another place where elders can serve — by teaching us through both words and example how to care for you, and reinforcing our feeble attempts with “Thank you,” smiles, and gentle suggestions.
Traditional cultures revered, and continue to revere, their elders as wisdom-keepers. But there is no roadmap left in our culture for what it means to be an elder. Similarly, younger generations have no roadmap for how to truly respect our elders and how to seek guidance from them. Yet there are many places to learn how to do this! Increasingly, organizations and communities around our country are creating opportunities for elders to hold a place of service. In addition, there are many organizations (like Rite of Passage Journeys) that offer programs to help folks think about what it is they have to offer in elderhood. There are creative aging Web sites and study groups. And probably, as you look around your block, there are young people just waiting for guidance and an older adult to take an interest in their lives.
Donít hesitate. Reach out today, and continue to make a difference in the world. Maybe, just maybe, your greatest contribution is still to come.