Lessons From Grandma
The wisdom of our elders may be the best life-tool available to us
By Susan Enfield and Linda Formichelli
Remember when getting older meant retiring, moving to Florida, and spending your golden years relaxing poolside, wondering how to fill up your days? Today, you’re more likely to find the 65-plus crowd traveling to exotic locales, starting new and more fulfilling careers, or taking care of the grandkids as a full-time gig. Thanks to medical advancements, more Americans are living into their 80s, 90s, and beyond, shifting the public perception of retirement and “old age.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2000, life expectancy in the United States reached an all-time high average of 76.9 years. And that’s just an average. (The CDC also estimates that by 2030, there will be 70 million Americans older than 65—more than twice the current number.) As more of our elders remain vital and active, our culture is beginning to reexamine how we view aging and the role of elders.
A driving force behind this reevaluation is a concept known as spiritual eldering. Spiritual-eldering training helps older people harvest the wisdom they have gathered over the years and find ways to share this valuable resource with family and community. This knowledge-sharing bond changes not only how younger people view their elders, but also how older people regard the aging process. “There is a lot of fear that aging is going to be a negative experience,” says Betty Anne Sullivan, EdD, author of Spiritual Elders: Women of Worth in the Third Millennium (Brockton, 1999), who boasts 62 years of life experience. Becoming a spiritual elder helped me to see aging in a positive light. I look at it as an enriching growth experience because I’m still learning and teaching others something new every day.”
A Movement Is Born
In 1984, spiritual eldering’s founder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, then in his mid-60s, found himself feeling increasingly depressed, mourning his lost youth, and feeling unsure about his future. A 40-day vision-quest retreat inspired him to create resources for others who were struggling with aging: He founded the national not-for-profit Spiritual Eldering Institute (SEI) in 1987, and wrote a widely praised book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing (Warner Books, 1995).
“In our Western, capitalist society, elders are invisible,” says Schachter-Shalomi, who is now 78 and affectionately known as “Reb” Zalman (“beloved teacher” in Hebrew). “When there isn’t a better model of aging—a different way to look at your life and its purpose—you get depressed, and the body breaks down more quickly,” says Schachter-Shalomi. He aimed to change this antiquated view of aging.
Truly Golden Years
By becoming spiritual elders, many of those 65 and older are forming strong, nurturing bonds with their families and their communities—and in the process redefining the meaning of “old age.”
Now based in Boulder, Colorado, the SEI offers multifaith workshops across the country on how to become a spiritual elder—defined as an older person who focuses on personal growth and who works to serve the community. Nearly 100 “sage-ing leaders” have completed training, more than half of whom now teach eldering seminars in their home communities. In the past few years, three SEI-sponsored Sage-ing Centers have opened in association with larger senior and community centers in South Bend, Indiana, and Winter Park and Boca Raton, Florida—and more are planned. “There are about 15,000 senior centers in the United States that would love to have a nonreligious way to address the spiritual needs of elder adults,” says Lori Miller, SEI’s executive director. “Elders are dealing with big issues, such as facing death, getting their legacies in place, and healing wounds from the past. Our blend of psychology and spirituality can help—and, most important, we have the tools and methods and training program in place, so these senior centers don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
So what exactly is a spiritual elder, or contemporary sage? Schachter-Shalomi’s model draws on three sources: the traditional role of the tribal elder, modern-day psychological and “brain-mind” research, and the ecology movement.
From Native American to African to Japanese, ancient cultures have historically placed elders in honored social roles. As judges, leaders, shamans, and seers, elders helped instruct the young, guide the social order, and foster spiritual exploration. The Industrial Revolution essentially short-circuited this archetype by emphasizing technological knowledge, which elders often lacked. Schachter-Shalomi contends that today, as an unprecedented number of baby boomers near “retirement age”—at the same time that our life span has been extended to unprecedented lengths—it’s more critical than ever for older adults to consider age-old questions about their role in society, and how best to live.
Citing recent neural development research that shows that older adults’ brains are geared to long-term memories, SEI director Miller makes the case that the elder brain is actually adapted toward contemplative development—even though we don’t generally associate old age with self-development and spiritual growth. Reflecting a similar shift in perspective, the well-known American psychologist Erik H. Erikson proposed adding a ninth stage called “transcendence” to his definition of the eight stages of life. In this last stage of life, he suggested, the essential challenge is shifting from a material, rational perspective to a more cosmic, transcendent vision as one prepares to complete this life’s journey and move on.
Finally, impressed with the importance of ecological issues, Schachter-Shalomi sees elders as wisdomkeepers whose long-term perspective can help inspire us to put aside our throwaway lifestyle in favor of a more sustainable one.
Resolving The Past
One doesn’t become a spiritual elder, however, simply by virtue of reaching a certain age. There’s a lot of “self work” to be done first. “To become sages,” says Schachter-Shalomi, “we must undergo an initiatory process in which we learn to lead without dominating others, to make compassion the ruling principle of our actions, and to serve the whole with a multigenerational purpose.”
As Schachter-Shalomi sees it, many older adults are “living in the box of the unlived life.” Unresolved past problems—unforgiven relationships, unfulfilled intentions—as well as a fear of death, can keep us from being in the present and moving into the future. Spiritual eldering workshops introduce contemplative tools, such as meditation, life review, and journaling, which are more commonly associated with youth and middle age, but which can be profoundly transformative for elders as well. A recent study at the Winter Park Health Foundation’s Sage-ing Center showed that participants overwhelmingly believe that what they’ve learned through sage-ing has had a positive impact on their lives, especially in improving relationships with their children and grandchildren.
Beyond the therapeutic value in their creation, journaling and oral histories (along with mentoring) are also great ways to “upload” elders’ accumulated wisdom to younger generations. Schachter-Shalomi compares dying before doing this work to “typing away on your computer and forgetting to hit ‘save,’ and then there’s a power outage. It’s upsetting!”
For prime examples of spiritual elders at work in the world, one needn’t look farther than Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. By teaching Sunday school, building low-cost homes for Habitat for Humanity, and working to protect voting rights in fledgling democracies, the Carters put to use the deep wisdom and compassion they have developed during long and active lives.
How-to mentoring workshops help connect spiritual elders-in-training with their communities in similar ways. The keys to successful mentoring, the instructors teach, are generous listening, building trust, and encouraging the recipient’s individuality rather than imposing one’s own values or opinions.
For more information about spiritual eldering and upcoming workshops in your area, contact the Spiritual Eldering Institute in Boulder, Colorado, at 303.449.SAGE, or visit www.spiritualeldering.org. You can also contact the following sage-ing centers:
Miller Center for Older Adults
Winter Park, Florida; 407.629.5771
Leighton Center for Senior Health
South Bend, Indiana; 574.284.6628
Phyllis and Harvey Sandler
Boca Raton, Florida; 561.477.3103
At Memorial Hospital’s Leighton Center for Senior Health in South Bend, Indiana, elders become “grandbuddies” with local fourth graders. During the school year, they write letters to each other and meet to work on joint projects—sometimes forging relationships that continue through high school and beyond. Last year, a group of women elders from the center also paired up with long-term residents at the local YWCA, mostly single women and mothers struggling to become financially self-sufficient. “Just to be with older women who love them for who they are was a very affirming experience for these younger women,” says Rosemary Cox, wellness therapist and sage-ing coordinator at Leighton Center. “We’re thinking of starting a program connecting our elders with these single mothers and women, to help them make the transition from the Y to living on their own.”
During the last decade, spiritual eldering has evolved into a larger and broader movement than Schachter-Shalomi could ever have imagined in 1987. Interest in the idea of positive, conscious aging has expanded and is now evident in books by such progressive thinkers as Ram Dass, author of Still Here (Riverhead Books, 2000), and cultural observer Gail Sheehy, author of Passages (Bantam Books, 1984) and the more recent New Passages (Ballantine Books, 1996), in which she maps out not only a second adulthood stage from age 45 to 75, but a third stage of adulthood from age 75 on.
Younger generations, currently living in turbulent and troubled times, are now taking the time to talk to their grandparents to discover what it was like to grow up during the turmoil of World War II. “The planet needs elder minds now more than ever,” says Schachter-Shalomi, adding that his hope for the future is that our leaders will learn to think more like elders as they navigate current global conflicts. If they did, the world might be a safer place to live.