Ageing in society: Growing older or growing elder?

From the moment we are born, we are growing older. But getting ‘old’ is something that we try to deny, ignore or resist to the best of our ability. Old age is not something we tend to look forward to as we associate ageing with decline, disability, disease and ultimately death.  

The narrative on ageing is generally pretty gloomy and there is a battle from mid-life onwards to mitigate the physical effects of ageing by doing all we can in terms of diet, exercise and even cosmetic surgery to ward off growing old for as long as possible.

What is it about growing older that we fear? In a society that is youth-obsessed, we have a deep-seated fear and loathing of old age.  The increased life-expectancy,  due to advances in medicine, science and technology, has given us the possibility of a longer life.  However, this increased longevity is not always seen in a positive light, when negative narrative focuses on the physical and social diminishments of old age and the inevitable economic costs that go with it.  

We fear losing independence, losing control of our lives and our place in the world.  We fear being a burden on our family and on society.  

There can be this one-sided view of ageing that creates a popular image of growing older with wrinkled skin, chronic disease and extra costs rather than a positive image of ageing as a time of wisdom, serenity, balanced judgement and self-knowledge that represent the fruits of a long life. 

Is there an alternative to the predominant perspective on ageing and growing older?  How can we reframe the latter time of our life as a stage we can look forward to, despite any limitations we might encounter on the journey?  Can we reframe the winter of our lives as a time that completes, rather than depletes us?

Instead of trying to avoid ‘growing older’, perhaps we can consider another option.  If we adopt a mindset that allows us to welcome ageing as positive, enriching and a time of further growth and expansion, how might our experience of life beyond our middle years be different?  Instead of ‘growing older’, perhaps we can consider ‘growing elder’.  Instead of moving closer to death, maybe we can view our journey as one which aims for completion.   Embracing this perspective opens us to the possibility that the final chapters of our life can be the most meaningful and fulfilling of our whole story.

Cultures of ageing and elderhood

Throughout most of history, the ‘elders’ of the tribe or community were revered and seen as ‘the wise one’.  Their role in society was respected as they were viewed as ‘the wisdom-keepers’, who distilled their life experiences and passed on their knowledge and values to the younger generations.  Elders occupied important roles in society as sages and seers, leaders and judges, guardians of the traditions and mentors of the young.   When life expectancy was much lower than today, arriving at old age was a significant achievement and those who succeeded in growing old were valued for the contribution they made to the tribe and community.  Their lives had as much, if not more, meaning and purpose at the latter end, than in previous stages, as they harvested their wisdom and left a legacy for the generations that followed.

So, what has happened?  Why do we dread the thought of getting older?  Does the culture we live in and the narrative around ageing feed into our fears and negative expectations about what is to come?

In some cultures, the older members of society are still considered the ‘elders’ and continue to enjoy an esteemed status.  Being old is considered an asset not a liability and these cultures remain faithful to traditional models of respecting and celebrating the journey of growing ‘elder’.   

In Greece, old age is honoured and celebrated, and respect for elders is central to the family values.  Here, it is a tribute and not an insult to address someone as ‘old man’ or ‘old woman’.  Native American nations have many different traditions that respect the wisdom and experience of the elders and these cultures do not fear death but accept it as an essential part of life.  In Korea, younger adults have a duty of care for the ageing members of the family.  It is customary here to have big celebrations to mark an individual’s 60th and 70th birthdays.  In India, elders are held in high esteem as the head of the family, often living with younger family members and are a valued source of advice and counsel.  In China and Singapore, laws are in place to protect the interests of the older generation and ensure that adult children play their role in supporting ageing parents.  In Japan, there is a national paid holiday, Respect the Aged Day, and companies give employees time off during the year to visit their parents.  Closer to home, Scotland has shifted the focus from hospitals to preventative care through its program called “Reshaping Care for Older People”.  This paradigm shift emphasises life over ailments.

In these cultures, the second half of life has meaning and value.  The limitations and diminishments of age are not ignored, but instead are seen as only part of the big picture.  There is a focus on what is to be gained from the older generation’s life- long experience and this is shared for the benefit of younger generations.

However, in the Western world, while we may have grown up with the message to ‘respect our elders’, we seem to have arrived at a place where older people are seen less as an asset and more as a burden on society.  Longer lives can require increased care and financial assistance, particularly in the later stage of life.  Family dynamics have changed and generations often live far apart with little interaction or opportunity for the passing on of wisdom, skills or knowledge.  We are ‘retired’ at a certain age and it can be difficult for some to find a new and fulfilling role in later life that offers a sense of purpose and meaning for the individual and society as a whole.

How have we reached this point?  Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on technological knowledge and rapid advancements, the knowledge and wisdom of the older generation became less relevant.  The elders of old lost their esteemed place and became disempowered from their elevated position in society.   With enforced ‘retirement’ the norm in many countries, the absence of meaningful roles post retirement in modern Western society may explain why older people can feel so empty and why families and communities suffer from societal fragmentation. 

The efforts to alter, reverse or somehow control the biological process of ageing impoverishes its meaning and reduces it to a stage to be endured rather than embraced and savoured.

What can we do to welcome ageing as a fundamental part of the human existence?  Do we want to grow older as defined by the current narrative or can we move towards a stage that has meaning, purpose and is fulfilling, despite the physical and cognitive challenges that are encountered along the way?  Regardless of the culture of ageing that we exist in, what can we do as individuals to embrace an empowering mindset about our golden years?

The elder mindset - A paradigm shift

How we think about ageing and what lies ahead requires us to be active participants in our own process.  We all ‘grow older’ but we can choose to ‘grow elder’.    The question “How can I spend my last years without being an economic and psychological burden on my loved ones and on society?” needs to change to “How can I ‘grow elder’ so that my life continues to flourish, as I offset the inevitable physical declines by focusing on what I have yet to learn and what I can share’?

This paradigm shift calls us to challenge the narrative on ageing and our personal beliefs about what getting older means for us.  It requires us to play an active role from mid-life onwards in shaping the second half of life in a way that increases rather than diminishes our sense of value, meaning, purpose, fulfilment and the contribution we make to others and society.  It means that we look forward with open eyes to what the future might look like, so that we can do all we can now to minimise the limitations of ageing and expand this life stage as an ‘age of possibility’.

In his book ‘The Wonder of Ageing’, Michael Gurian describes ageing from mid-life onwards as a journey through 3 distinct and wonderful stages.  The first stage, the ‘Age of Transformation’ commences from around 50 and brings us up to about 65.  The second stage is the ‘Age of Distinction’ which brings us from mid 60s to mid 70s.  The final stage he calls the ‘Age of Completion’.  These stages of elderhood, as described by the author, create a new spirit of ageing that position the transition from adult to elder as a journey of growth and potential.   We can choose to grow older or grow elder.

Gurian describes an elder as:

“……someone who passes on specific work or wisdom, occupies a niche, a lifework, a legacy and teaches it to others, while also providing wise counsel when needed, models life purpose and maturity, has fewer power struggles with others; more drawing out of others’ gifts, remains as physically and mentally active as possible, takes control of damaging body/mind practices and transforms them so the body/mind can remain healthy as he/she ages, so that an elder can be of use and enjoy life for a long as possible, connects young people and society to mysteries of success, compassion, freedom of faith, takes the risk of modelling both humility and self-confidence in the face of real life and protects the rights of others to live their own life”.  

Becoming an elder

We can live well into our 70s/80s/90s and beyond, and still not become an elder.  To become an elder, we must make a conscious choice about who we are and how we want to show up in the second half of life.  

Another highly regarded book on the process of ageing was written in 1997 and the core concepts are as relevant today as they were then.  ‘From Age-ing to Sage-ing’ (Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller) attempts to change our orientation to ageing and guides us through the second half of life, on a conscious journey to become elders,  so that we create an experience that is vital, vibrant and meaningful.  

The authors promote the idea that if we embrace our ageing from late fifties an early sixties, we can avoid becoming elderly and initiate the process of becoming elders.  In this way, the breakdown of our youthful self can make way to the breakthrough of the emerging elder self.  They suggest that this is a time when we are called to “engage in life completion, a process that involves specific tasks, such as coming to terms with our mortality, healing our relationships, enjoying our achievements and leaving a legacy for the future”.

Instead of ageing unconsciously and perhaps uncomfortably, we can take active responsibility for our destiny in old age, living how we choose to live, rather than meeting social expectations.

Our elder years are seen as a time of harvesting….gathering the fruits of a lifetime’s experience.  In order to share our ‘harvest’ and wisdom, we can become mentors to younger generations.  In our splintered society, this can be a challenge.  But if we don’t ‘save’ our life experiences through mentoring and through leaving legacies, the wisdom that was gathered through decades of learning will disappear.  

Mentoring as a practice may have been replaced in many societies by professional certifications.  As a society, we need to find ways to introduce the idea of harvesting wisdom and mentoring younger generations.    The restoration of mentoring as a cultural force could go a long way in humanising our institutions and in providing the intergenerational glue to combat social problems.  As individuals, on a path to elderhood, we need to explore ways to engage in mentoring within our families, despite any distance, physical or emotional, that may exist.

Becoming an elder calls us to review our life, to come to terms with past experiences both joyful and painful.  Seeing our elder years as a time of healing, gives us an opportunity to reframe life lessons, practice forgiveness in order to heal old wounds and come to terms with our mortality.  Fear of death often prevents us from joyfully engaging in the ageing process.  Denying ageing and death in our later years interferes with conscious and deliberate eldering.  Becoming an elder requires us to embrace the age of completion as a life-affirming time despite the reality of our physical demise.

By being open to an alternative view on ageing, perhaps we can influence a new narrative on growing older.  What difference might it make, if we shift into a new mindset that encourages us to ‘grow elder’?  We can live well into our 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, and still not become an elder.  To become an elder, we must make a conscious choice about who we are and how we want to show up in the second half of life.  As with any stage, there will be challenges and changes.  There will be new territory to navigate.  But at every stage there is the potential for growth and expansion if we want it.  Rather than being seen as a burden on society, the older members can be valued and celebrated as mentors who are capable of guiding their families and communities with hard-earned wisdom.  Elderhood can be a rewarding experience when we enjoy a new role in the family, the neighbourhood and the world.  

To fully embrace elderhood as a time of growth and contribution, we need to shift our current perspective, individually and collectively, to choose ‘growing elder’ in place of ‘growing older’.  

Be there for an older loved one, from anywhere.