Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Beth and Ronni
On Respect For Elders

The Case for Elderhood

When I started this blog, I made a conscious decision to avoid pejorative, euphemistic and cutesy words for old because they perpetuate negative stereotypes. I wanted to the word “old” to become as much a simple descriptor as “young” and in writing here day in and day out, I have been so personally successful that for some time now I’ve been able to throw around the words “old” and “older” with never a flinch.

Now there is another word we’ll practice with at Time Goes By: elder, defined in dictionaries as

“an older person; an older, influential member of a family, tribe, or community”

Elder is an old-fashioned word that is rarely spoken or written these days, though it has come into use in recent years as an adjective - elder law, elder care, elder housing, elder abuse – only, I suspect, because it sounds better than old people’s law, old people’s care, etc. and not with any thought to its real meaning.

Elder will be used at Time Goes By now as a noun along with its important, associated concept, elderhood, which is a different season of life from adulthood that was, by ancient tradition going back tens of thousands of years, granted a respect that our culture has discarded only in the past 100 years or so.

Adulthood is all about action - doing, reaching, grasping, achieving, getting, succeeding – as it should be. The idea that elderhood holds different imperatives does not exist in our collective consciousness anymore. Instead, elders are pressured to keep up the pace, to continue to achieve and society’s highest praise for old people is reserved for those who most resemble adults in their appearance and behavior. And when they no longer are capable of holding up that pretense, they are made invisible to the culture, consigned to institutions where all rights to decisions about their lives are claimed by adults.

But what if old people, as I believe, have a different reason to be? What if elders, when the time comes to step down from the hurly-burly of adulthood, were seen as the keepers of a shared culture, the storehouse of inherited knowledge, custodians of tradition? What if elders were respected for those qualities and called upon as guides and advisors?

What if the tarnish was removed from aging and elderhood was restored to its ancient position of worth?

Tamar at In and Out of Confidence asked recently,

“I wonder why we reach back to our past memories so much as we get older. Has looking to the future become frightening to think about? Or is it to remind ourselves of who we were so that we can be sure of who we are now?”

There is another answer. During busy adulthood with careers to build and children to raise, there is little time to look back. As the years pass and there are fewer ahead of us than behind, pressures abate and memories naturally come forward with their pleasures and pains, lessons learned, knowledge gained and we use those memories to help us determine, in our later years, the meaning of the active, adult lives we've led and to prepare us for an acceptance of death.

It is what elderhood is for. But by making youth, youthful pursuits or their facsimiles the gold standard of life unto death, as American culture insists, we are missing, on a personal level, the opportunity to understand why we were here. And in the community at large, we are impoverishing the culture by refusing the wisdom of elders and losing the usefulness of their influence.

We’ll be talking a lot more about elderhood at Time Goes By.


A generous amount of space used just for a word. I surmise you might think less of my intelligence than I really project. Most of us know what elder means.

Ronni, thanks for the link! I so much like the idea of preparing for the acceptance of death and trying to make sense of what my life has meant up to this point. And I think that is what I am doing lately. In addition to "claiming me" probably for the first time in my life - by reflecting and understanding what has happened to me, and the type of choices I made in the past.

I do believe, though, that many people are frightened to think about death, and therefore dwell in a kind of nostalgic thinking about a past that was more wonderful than what they imagine is to come.

I look forward accompanying you with your/our future explorations of "elderhood."

"What if elders, when the time comes to step down from the hurly-burly of adulthood, were seen as the keepers of a shared culture, the storehouse of inherited knowledge, custodians of tradition? What if elders were respected for those qualities and called upon as guides and advisors?"

In some cultures, particularly the first nations around the world, the "elder" is held in high esteem, the one who passes on the teachings of their people's history to the youngest.

We have lost this in our youth-crazed society but with voices like yours, Ronni, we can bring back the respect for elderhood!

I don't know. I think of "elders" as those guys running the show at the Presbyterian Church. So just put me down as "venerable". Or maybe "grizzled but full of book larnin'".

It may be that one reason our memories come flooding back is that some of us begin to feel un-needed, un-heeded and not useful or relevant anymore. Not me, but some elders I know. So they dwell in the past, where they were listened to and appreciated for their accomplishments. I think aging jocks do that a lot.

There is only one more promotion to acquire after 'elder' and that is 'ancestor'. Must now practice for the part because I shall be granted this honour inevitably and should prepare to accept it gracefully. Thank you for reminding me about the obligation.
So far, the only words of wisdom that I can impart at 71 are that I have learnt only too well that I was not born to be wise. Should the descendants respond, "Is that all ?", my posthumous reply would be, "Listen, kid, it took a lifetime to get that far. Be warned." Many thanks for your illuminations and may you live happily to offer many more.

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