Young adults are sometimes “cocky” enough to think that they (and their friends) know all that they need to know about life. However, wise young adults, as they enter the world of involvement (the world of employment and parenthood), need to listen to the advice of their elders. As a young adult I was certainly not inclined to do so. But experience has taught me otherwise.
Yet elders need to continue to learn (life-long learning) and not rely totally on their age and experience as the complete package for wisdom later in life. Elders need to get involved as sages. Sages are elders who choose to use their experience in life for the betterment of their fellow citizens.
In the year 1900, 2.4 million Americans, or 2.4% of the population, were over 65 years of age. In the year 2021, approximately 16.5% of the population were over 65 years of age. This aging population represents a wealth of resources that we need to use effectively in the decades ahead. Our aging citizens might be losing some of their physical capabilities, but they still can be vital contributors to society.
The book From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi makes a dramatic case for the need of elders in our society.1 He notes that in past generations, elders were considered to be tribal leaders, or sages, or wise individuals that would lend significant advice to the younger generations. With the advent of the industrial and computer revolutions, we seem less likely to listen to the advice of our elders, assuming that they don’t “know anything,” since they might not be familiar with some of the latest technology. The author, however, emphasizes that elders are:
- sages who offer experience, balanced judgment and wisdom for the welfare of society
- wisdom-keepers who have the ongoing responsibility for maintaining society’s well-being and safeguarding the health of the planet
- people who are still growing, still learning, and synthesizing wisdom from life-long experiences, formulating this into a legacy for future generations
- going through a process of conscious and deliberate growth, becoming sages who are capable of guiding their families and communities with hard-earned wisdom.
All too often we treat our senior citizens as our elderly not our elders. Despite the loss of some physical and mental capabilities, our elders should come to terms with their declining physical capabilities and accept expanded mental potential, spiritual renewal, and greater social usefulness. Effective sage-ing is a process that enables older people to become spiritually radiant, physically vital, and socially responsible “elders of the tribe.”.
Our elders (sages) are, most of all, capable of being:
- Mentors—teaching the young. This is perhaps one of the most important roles for any of us, actively supporting and nurturing the educational process. Hands-on mentoring can make a difference when it comes to issues such as literacy, teenage pregnancy and parenting just to name a few examples.
- Mediators—helping to resolve conflict, both civil and intergenerational. Our elders have a “world of experience” to help with issues that cannot seem to be resolved.
- Monitors—serving as “watchdogs” of public bodies. Their “world of experience” can help recognize problems in their early stages and advocate for change before significant harm is done.
- Mobilizers—spearheading social change. Our sages can use their experience and “influence” to lead the fight for change.
- Motivators—urging people toward the public good and away from special interests. It is too easy to get caught up in our narrowly focused agenda, losing sight of the common good. Elders can help keep us on track.
Two mentors during my medical training, Dr. Sam Katz (former Chair of Pediatrics, Duke University Medical Center) and Dr. George Brumley are constant reminders to me of the example I need to live up to as I age. Their wisdom, compassion and their genuine interest in my training, my professional career and my personal life stood out as prime examples of sages using the 5Ms to make a difference.
The actor Kirk Douglas wrote an article late in life with the quote “now in my golden years, I’ve learned that you can’t learn how to live until you know how to give.” I couldn’t agree more. I just wish we all, including myself, learned it sooner.
It is never too late to get actively involved in our communities, promoting projects that will improve the lives of our fellow citizens. We cannot accomplish positive change without the willingness to listen and learn together. Our elders have a responsibility to get involved in the events of today. They cannot sit back, saying it is no longer their responsibility. It’s their responsibility because so many of their generation sacrificed their lives for their opportunities, which are now our opportunities. I’m looking forward to the challenge in the years ahead.
- From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schacter-Shalomi (Time-Warner Books, 1997).