The Business of Eldering
by Stan Hirst
What is eldering all about? There seems to be no standard definition or benchmark, and what you decide to use as a point of reference depends on where you start.
Some have a strongly positive description of elders and eldering. The Eldering Institute, for example, defines elders as those who have realized that the later years are a prime opportunity for a rich and rewarding life. Rather than waiting for the inevitable loss, decline, lack of purpose and resignation, elders seek to change their perspective by focusing on compassion, health, happiness, creative self-expression and service. In place of contributing new knowledge and information, Elders may choose to share their own wisdom. Their insights and perspectives enable them to connect ideas and solutions, and to collaborate with others who are passionate about their common interests. Rather than controlling, manipulating or resisting, Elders can accept the situation and then share the possibilities they see.
Others come at the subject from a more negative approach. This seems to be common with those who have worked and studied ageing from a ‘senior’ perspective. So, for example, Dr. William Thomas, a geriatrician, has expressed his experiences in his book What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World. He notes that modern society rightly or wrongly has mounted a systematic program of eradication of elderhood, despite the fact that this concept has been around for the past 10,000 generations. We now live in a society now that is organized around the precept that adulthood lasts forever, i.e. once you become a productive, independent adult there is no other acceptable way to live. The negative aspects then stem mainly from the inevitable clinging of seniors to the myth of independence because they’re afraid that if they lose that, they will be effectively removed from the community. Society looks at old age and sees one thing – decline – and is consequently blind to some of the most miraculous things that elderhood has to offer.
The Suzuki Elders are now in their third year of existence as an association of elders affiliated to the David Suzuki Foundation. In their original incarnation they were the Council of Elders, established in 1996 and intended to emulate elders in typical aboriginal communities. In that role they held meetings, arranged presentations, discussed issues and imagined themselves as a sounding board for the programs and policies of the Foundation. Those ambitions never materialized, possibly because the Council did not have the vested authority which aboriginal elders posses in their communities, or maybe Dr. William Thomas’ “adulthood forever” syndrome doomed them to being marginalized.
The emergent Suzuki Elders association has had to address all these eldering concepts yet again. The group has taken a new approach – becoming as functionally efficient as soon as possible while gradually sorting out the semantics and concepts. So the Elders have established themselves within the community as a force for change, albeit small and slow, by organizing forums, presenting technical courses to other elder groups, extending their membership numbers, and grappling with the technical and social difficulties of communicating at a mass level with the elder community at large.
Rather than seek firm definitions, the Suzuki Elders have so far focused on identifying and naming important concepts and activities associated with eldering. So, for example, they have described themselves as self-identified elders, and they have categorized their main activities as bringing voices, experiences and memories to mentor, motivate and support other elders and younger generations in dialogue and action on environmental issues.
A further step forward has recently come following a leading question to the Elders by broadcaster and writer Terry O’Reilly during the staging of the Elder and Environment Forum in November 2011, “What business are you in?”
Elders do not typically regard themselves as being in a “business”, since the concepts of business and elderhood seem, at first glance, to be grounded in very different concepts. But, following the posing of the question, came the eventual realization that a group of elders seeking to mentor, motivate and support are very much in a business of sorts, and the sooner this can be defined and a consensus reached, the more effective the group is likely to be in the long term.
And so the Suzuki Elders have come up with a first cut at defining the eldering business. As with so many other facets of the eldering “business’ this is likely be an iterative process and one which will need reflection discussion and revision.
And so, for what it’s worth, here is where we’ve got so far.