What is an Elder?

By Jim Selman | Bio

As founder of The Eldering Institute, I am a bit embarrassed to acknowledge that until last week I had not asked the straightforward question, “What is an elder?”  This is not to say I haven’t been involved in the conversation for quite a long time. I have spoken with Elders in aboriginal communities, African tribes, and religious communities. I have read everything I can find on the subject. There is no doubt that the role of Elder has been important throughout human history and continues to be so in many communities on the planet. But understanding the role of an elder in a particular community context is not the same as understanding what an elder really is, at least in our modern world. To say this differently, how would you know if you were an Elder? How would you know one if you met him or her?

It will come as no surprise that the word ‘elder’ has a bit of a bad name in modern American society. It conjures up images of nursing homes, ‘eldercare’ and the generic label for the old and frail—the elderly. My friend Eric Utne is on a quest to ‘redeem’ the word with positive connotations such as guardians of wisdom, guides for the young, and servant leaders in communities. It will be ironic if advertisers and business interests succeed in shifting our appreciation of older members of our society and the contributions they have to make. However, it doesn’t really matter how or who helps us as we learn to distinguish and listen to the true Elders among us.

Elders have historically been a role granted to members of a community—those held in high esteem and respected for their sagacity and knowledge of topics important to the wellbeing and survival of the community. Depending upon the culture, their roles may include responsibility for adjudicating disputes, intervening in governing processes, and sometimes working with others in the community to confront or solve particular recurring problems. In most traditions, they are always consulted when the community is facing or dealing with some exceptional circumstance or situation. The emphasis here, however, is on the idea that Elder is a role, independent of the particular attributes of someone who fills that role. This role does not exist in our mainstream society. Who knows whether this is because we’ve lost the kinds of community-based social structures of the past or because of the diversity of our information sources and systems of governance.

At first glance into the criteria for distinguishing an elder, my first inclination was to say that we just don’t have elders any longer. The young are left to fend for themselves with whatever tools and political frameworks exist. But as I pursued the question of what is it that really distinguishes an elder, I have come to the conclusion that there are elders all around us if we have the eyes to see them. Let me clarify.

I see three arenas where we can find elders. First, in the communities that we do have, whether they be geographical (such as a small town) or ‘special interests’ (such as clubs, churches or activities). The second is by some area of concern or issue (such as activists or practitioners in a particular field). The third is through some institution (such as the Congress or the Judiciary). However we sort them, in each area we can find senior members whose presence provides continuity between the past and the future and who selflessly work in the service of others.

If we look closer, these elders also embody a number of other attributes that, taken together, give us a generic profile of who an elder is. For example, one common denominator is that elders are approachable and sought out by the young. They have real and active relationships with many people younger than themselves.

Elders seem to universally know who they are and can remain open and interested in what’s going on in a manner that is non-judgmental.

They exude a quiet confidence (perhaps serenity) while also holding a large ambition for others and their community.

In one conversation I had on this subject, one of my colleagues suggested that elders are storytellers and seem to always be in the middle of building communities around whatever their area of interest and commitment may be.

They seem to have a kind of ‘wholeness’ that they are willing and able to share with others.

I don’t think these criteria are definitive, but they can at least encourage us to take a closer look at the older people in our lives and our relationships with other generations.

From all this, I conclude that elders are recognized, listened to, and involved. If we just start there, then we have no scarcity of elders. The biggest challenge for elders (and for any of us) is to learn how to create a demand for who we are.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.