Paying It Forward:
Socially Active and Engaged Elders

A while back, a group of friends and I discussed the amount of political and social activity necessary to support the environment, the earth and her people. We looked at all the activities required to take an active role in guarding the health of the planet and speaking up for her people. Who would write letters? Who would write emails? Who would organize us to voice our opinion and influence lawmakers closer to home? Would it be possible for us to create an organization where we could have one person do what needed to be done for the community? We’d have to have a salary line to support such a person or persons.

The idea, though a good one, just didn’t seem to work. Even amongst us older adults, there was not one who was interested in actually taking on the job. Some needed more than a grass-roots income; others felt the service would require too much; others felt the task was beyond their understanding.

I feel it would be worthwhile to organize a cadre of elders who have retired to serve as a clearinghouse for political and social action, as advocates for a better life on this planet to create a web of elder mind and elder caring. Such experienced voices could help us hear what the issues are, which ones to support, what rationale and stance to take.

This task of forming a visible web of actively engaged elders is part of the "November work" for us (see page 14, From Age-ing to Sage~ing, ©l995, Warner Books). How would it look? In the social-action arena, some elders could help with correspondence around local issues, telephoning, some with filing, some with running errands. Consider paying back (ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country) and paying forward for future generations.

We could create a core of retired people to visit prisons —elder home hospice volunteers, elders reading in the schools. Retirees could become engaged by passing on their professional experience and wisdom in all occupations, thus mentoring (giving good ear and support to) younger workers who are meeting the challenges of the working world.

These would have two benefits: recipients of the care from elders would benefit from personal attention, understanding and experience of the elder, and the elders themselves would find inspiration and enthusiasm for the work they do for others.

Giving back to the organization of the social fabric, we could see a parish, a ghetto, a neighborhood, a community where elders are naturally involved. Where elder minds support those who are breadwinning and do not have time to spare for the daily tasks that require presence.

Paying it forward, we would find that when our time comes to be in a retirement home, in hospice, or diminished in our own home, there would be people in our community available with loving, caring friendship. The elders would play a role different than that of chaplains who visit the sick and home-bound. Chaplains play a sectarian role with the goal of salvation or spiritual guidance. I’m talking about elders who have no such mandate, but who are genuine friends and companions to peers regardless of sectarian background. These tasks would require elders with open hearts and patience, understanding, humor—all of the qualities of spiritual maturity we encourage with the sage-ing work and contemplative practices.

This kind of social action often comes into consideration with clergy who meet to plan together for the good of the community. But clergy have the difficult task of teaching and energizing the members of their communities. An elder group or council, locally, could assume some of the social support role.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was an internationally recognized loving teacher who drew from many disciplines and cultures. He has was at the forefront of ecumenical discussions, enjoying close friendships with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and many other leading sages of our time and was the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement which laid out the foundations for 21st-century Judaism.

He was instrumental in inspiring the convergence of ecology, spirituality, and religion and in his later years put special emphasis on Spiritual Eldering, or “Sage-ing” as he called it in his seminal book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. Reb Zalman's “Sage-ing” work — work which commenced after he was 60 — was seminal in the emergence of a conscious aging movement in America and the inspiration of our own efforts with Second Journey. He died on July 8, 2014, at the age of 89. For more about this remarkable, gentle soul, visit the Reb Zalman Legacy Project.