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Health & Wellness

Becoming an Elder: The Next Step in a Life of Meaning

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It often seems that our culture neither values the aging or the aged.

Simply put, things aren’t like they were in our grandparents’ era when older folks received a fair amount of respect.. So these days, the idea of becoming an “elder” may not sound like something you’d ever want to do. If so, you’d be missing out on an essential life experience, says Michael Gurian, a counselor and author of the about-to-be-reissuedThe Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life After Fifty.

In his book, Gurian writes extensively about what it means to become an elder, first defining it in a very specific way. “An elder, versus an ‘adult,’ has an evolved focus—they’re more intrinsically focused on passing on work and wisdom than climbing the success ladder alone,” he explains. An elder also “models life purpose and maturity by cutting down on needless power struggles so that the self can focus on service to younger people.” In addition, someone who fits this label prioritizes physical and mental health (they consider maintaining wellness to be “a sacred task,” says Gurian) and they “model both humility and self-confidence in asserting wisdom and teaching skills to younger people.”

If that sounds like a tall order—especially at a time of your life when you may be winding down on responsibilities, not taking on more—it might be. But Gurian thinks that becoming an elder in your circle, or even in a wider community, is extremely important—and not just because it helps others. “We want to become elders because a life of meaning now depends on it,” he says emphatically.

If we don’t move into this new way of being, we won’t become what we’re meant to be at this time in our lives, believes Gurian. And, he says, “we both fail the younger people who depend on us for wisdom and guidance and ourselves… We will feel somewhat meaningless and even constantly judged as invisible,” Gurian explains. “If, however, we embrace being elders, there’s no invisibility” until near the very end of our lives.

Cultivating Spirit

An important habit that can you shift your life into that of an elder, says Gurian, is engaging in a spiritual practice. This—along with mentoring young people and practicing service to the world in some way—is essential if you’re hoping to make meaning out of your later years. “Elders tend to become masters of these [three] elements, though with different concentrations for each individual person,” he explains, adding that people who avoid these three aspects of midlife and beyond tend to experience distress.

For example, if a spiritual practice— prayer, worship, meditation, or a simple daily walking meditation—isn’t something you do, Gurian believes that could affect both physical and mental health. “Mindfulness, especially as we age, de-stresses the body and brain and is, thus, essential for the health of body and spirit,” he says. “If we avoid it, we suffer and can become just an ‘old complainer’ about our ravaged lives, rather than an elder.”

Similarly, if we focus on finding ways to serve the world—volunteer work, caring for children, grandchildren, and friends—we are more likely to avoid feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness. Gurian adds, too, that without this outreach to others we miss the chance to form all those relationships that come from this service. “The older person will become a lonely soul rather than an elder,” he says.

But in mentoring younger people we can pass on “those skills, talents, stories, and all that worth,” Gurian explains. “When we become old but we don’t mentor others, we steal our great gifts from the society and the individuals we touch by hoarding them into us. An elder is an older person who concentrates on passing on his or her gifts so that by the time he or she dies, the soul is emptied of all it has to give and ready to travel on unencumbered.”

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