Old isn’t Elder

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.

3 thoughts on “Old isn’t Elder”

  1. 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. 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. 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’?

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