The Role of the Modern Elder | Omega

As the number of people age 65 and over increases in the United States, there's an opportunity to define what it means to be a modern-day elder.

In traditional Native American cultures, as people age and become elders, it becomes their responsibility to pass along their life experience and wisdom to younger generations. And in return, members of the tribe collectively care for their elders.

Today in the United States, more than 76 million baby boomers are creating a shift in the age composition of our population. Experts say people aged 65 and older will make up more than 20 percent of the population by 2029.

But what does it mean to be an elder in modern-day, youth-obsessed America?

The Advent of Conscious Aging

John Sorensen of the Conscious Elders Network says, “To be an elder for me is to take advantage of all the things I’ve learned in life—the experiences I’ve had, the stumbles I’ve made—and figuring out how to recover from those things. We are given a life of fate; our job is to figure out our destiny.”

Sorensen is talking about being a conscious elder, which The Center for Conscious Eldering defines as "a paradigm which recognizes and builds on the importance of lifestyle choices and the potential for new careers in the senior years, but moves beyond these.”

They also note that "elder is a role that is consciously chosen and requires preparation at all levels—physical, psychological, and most importantly, spiritual.”

As many Americans are discovering, elder life can continue to be a time of both engagement and service in communities rather than withdrawal. 

A Focus on Giving Back & Happiness

“I think of an elder as someone who has an open mind, an open heart, and an open will,” said Jan Hively of Pass It On Network, a grassroots organization of thought leaders who respond to the demands of aging through mutual support networks. Their programs help build community, create new pathways to meaningful work, and expand learning opportunities.

Those involved in the Pass It On Network and other organizations like it are often called to be in service as an elder because it makes them feel happy. Research has found that happiness drops at middle age and then skyrockets when people reach their 80s. In fact, those who rate themselves highest on happiness scales are ages 82 to 85.

Psychologists believe this could be due to a combination of changes in the brain and that older people have less worries about the future so they find more pleasure in the present moment and with ordinary activities.

“I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills,” wrote David Brooks in an editorial. “I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.”

© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies