The role of the elder was once the most revered role in our human communities. Eldership as a role and position within a human community started within the tribal traditions. There we find an emphasis on elders as guides and leaders. This indicates that they are experienced and wise and are fit to lead the tribe and teach the young. Elders also resolve social concerns and are expected to make final decisions about the direction communities will take on the many social and individual issues we humans must face.
Today, however, elders are scarcely available to guide and initiate the young and lead our communities to make wise decisions. There is an absence of elders also because the old have not been given the skills and ability to be elders. Moreover, in the last few centuries, the status of the elderly as respected members of their societies has declined.
Paralleling this decline has been a diminution of the elders’ role in their respective communities. We need to train elders if we want to help individuals living in our communities and societies with the important tasks of supporting and guiding the younger in age and experience. For being older does not make an elder. The qualities of eldership must be acquired through much training, learning and practice. If we recall, for example, how monks in the various spiritual traditions are initiated over many years into becoming a respected member of their communities, then we have a glimpse of what it will take for an older person to grow into becoming an elder.
There are a few organizations in the United States that try to implement this vision of eldership into practice. Notably the Eden Alternative programs (www.edenalt.org), AgeSong (www.agesong.com), AgeSong Institute (www.agesonginstitute.org), and Mather Lifeways (www.matherlifeways.com) are at the forefront of making this change. I do hope that other individuals, organizations and corporations will swiftly follow their example.
For it is our elders, their life experience, skill, knowledge and wisdom that will help usher in a new era of understanding how we can live in harmony with planet and people. And it is our elders who, together with the young, will lead the way to help establish a sustainable way of life, both in terms of matter and spirit.
The stakes are higher than one might think. The value set based on youth also brings with it an attitude and approach to life that must be balanced by the wisdom and experience of age. Though this seems obvious at first glance, the divide between the generations is widening, not decreasing. Modern technologies, their apparent wizardry and standing in the world as benchmarks of civilization, are advancing to such a degree and speed that a counter movement has already begun to take hold. Elders need to be infused in the decision-making processes in the world. Their experience and natural attitude towards sustainability is needed to help protect and guide people and planet.