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What Does It Mean to Be an “Elder”?

By | 2020-07-27T12:53:22+00:00 July 27th, 2020|

Our new audio podcast, Aging is a Trip, has already gotten great feedback from listeners. Each episode is intended to take a candid, but lighthearted look at various aspects of aging and retirement.

In the first installment, I interviewed Dr. Keren Wilson, who is considered the originator of the “assisted living” concept as we know it today. Dr. Wilson started the first assisted living community in the U.S. in the early 1980s and today is doing incredible work in the aging services space. It was a fantastic and enlightening conversation about the state of the gerontology industry and how we deliver aging services in this country.

The second episode of the Aging is a Trip audio podcast, entitled “I’m an Elder and Darn Proud of It!,” features a discussion with Dr. Harvey Austin, a renowned surgeon and a resident of a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Connecticut, who has literally written the book on what it means to be an “Elder” in our society: Elders Rock! Don’t Just Get Older: Become an Elder.

In his book, Dr. Austin describes the concept of “Elder” as “a STAGE of life, not an AGE of life,” and asserts that “Elderhood is full of aliveness, joy, and creativity — our birthright.” It’s a powerful analysis of how our mindset impacts our outlook and a touching first-hand account of the natural beauty of the aging process.

>> Related: “Being here feels right”: A Firsthand Account of Moving to a CCRC

The three stages of human life

In this newest episode of the podcast, Dr. Austin explains how the world once thought of humans as having three stages of life: youth, adult, and Elder (though Dr. Austin says “Elder” is the only one that deserves capitalization). This was the social structure when we lived as tribes, or in previous centuries when a strong sense of community was paramount for survival.

He notes that in recent centuries, however, since many families no longer have multiple generations that live under the same roof (or even in the same ZIP code), we have lost the Elder stage and the benefits it brings to our society. We are either “child” or “adult,” and we’ve forsaken the stage of the wise and revered “Elder.”

Through what Dr. Austin calls “The Paradox of Modern Times,” we are living two or three times longer than what humans used to live in previous centuries, but we are failing to seek the wisdom and insights of that Elder generation when it comes to technology and advancements. We ask the adult question “Can we?” but we fail to ask those Elders who have more life experiences “Should we?”

“We now have a world run by adults without Elder supervision,” says Dr. Austin.

>> Related: Introducing Our New Audio Podcast: Aging is a Trip

Becoming an Elder

Dr. Austin and I discussed what it means to become an Elder. We all know that people have a tendency to resist change — change is scary, after all. “It’s so easy just to keep on going the way we’re going, becoming more and more ‘adult’ — thinking the way we always did.”

Dr. Austin notes. “There’s no natural way to become an Elder. You have to train yourself to do it. Becoming ‘old’ is automatic — our body does that, our mind does that — but to become an ‘Elder,’ you have to be moved by something.”

He says that for most people, that “something” that inspires them to become an Elder is “a whack up alongside the head” such as a loved one’s death, the loss of a job or a home, or a serious illness. It takes something that “shakes you to your core and brings you to a crossroads” where you either say you’re going to go back to your familiar status quo, or you’re going to double-down on living your life to its fullest and most meaningful, opening you up to the possibility of attaining that Elder status.

Embracing your Elderhood

But there’s another step still to reaching Elderhood. You have to convince yourself that you are an Elder, shifting your point of view, embracing that label, and revealing (or un-concealing) that part of ourselves that is the Elder. “You become much more ‘other-centric’ than just being the actor, producer, and director in your own life,” explains Dr. Austin. And this can happen at any age.

One of my favorite thoughts on “Elderhood” that Dr. Austin shares is about the importance of keeping a positive attitude, keeping a sense of humor, and focusing on what matters in life, such as helping others in your community.

He says: “Elders get the joke: We’re here for a while, and then we disappear. What are you going to do while you’re here? You’re either going to do everything to make it wonderful for yourself, or you’re going to start doing some things to make it wonderful for others.”

>> Related: Positive Aging: Changing Your Mindset About Growing Older

How to access our audio podcast

I must tell you: The conversation Dr. Austin and I had for this podcast episode was among the most meaningful discussions I’ve ever experienced. While the word “elderly” has come to have negative connotations within modern society, I view it as a positive term, thanks in large part to Dr. Austin’s book and conversations like this with him. I’ve truly redefined what the term “Elder” means, not only to me personally but what I think it should mean to our society as a whole.

I hope you will take a few minutes to listen to this latest installment in our audio podcast. And I hope you will find Dr. Austin’s insights on aging and becoming an Elder as profound and thought-provoking as I did.

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About the Author:

Brad Breeding is president and co-founder of myLifeSite, a North Carolina company that develops web-based resources designed to help families make better-informed decisions when considering a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) or lifecare community.