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‘Elderhood” Can Be A Meaningful Stage Of Life

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am feeling guilty for not being productive in retirement.  Is this just part of the retirement process?

Answer: Your question leads to a larger one.  And that is, what exactly are the expectations from someone in retirement, particularly if that someone is older?  Is this a new life stage?Dr. William Thomas, an international authority on geriatric medicine gave a talk at TED, a small nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading.”  The talk can be seen on U-tube at

According to Dr. Thomas, we live in a society where old people have some standing only if they can do what younger people do.  And if they can’t, they essentially “are disappeared.”  A case in point is residents of nursing homes.  “Their only crime is frailty.  They live a life sentence without parole,” notes Dr. Thomas.

Many think that age is the big problem.  According to Dr. Thomas, however, the real problem is our devotion to youth.  “Adulthood is sucking the joy out of daily existence.”

One reason is that a good adulthood is based on whether or not one can mirror the actions and activities of youth.  What we need, he continued, is a new life stage beyond youth, adolescence and adulthood.

“Elderhood” is what Dr. Thomas advocates.  It is a life stage that can be rich, real, deep and meaningful – if we are willing to outgrow adulthood.  He calls for a rebuilding of the lifecycle, to include a stage of life after adulthood that reflects the ongoing strengths, abilities and wisdom of our growing older population.

Others have tried to define a new stage of life.

Gerontologist Ken Dychtwald focused on “middlescence” as a time when individuals place greater value on time with friends and loved ones, enjoying personal growth and the excitement of encountering new people, places and cultures.  Given more free time they are less interested in purchasing things and more interested in new and stimulating experiences.

Life coach and psychologist Ron Pevny runs a Center for Conscious Eldering.  He agrees that our prescription for aging has been influenced by modern society’s view of the roles of older adults.

Those views are being challenged by a new understanding of the human potential throughout the life span.  Penvy notes that being an elder is a conscious choice that requires preparation on all levels – physical, psychological, and most importantly, spiritual.

Here are some of his principles:

  • Certain abilities diminish with age; other can grow and peak.
  • There’s a difference between being “old” and an elder.
  • Growing into elderhood is the pinnacle of a life’s journey.
  • Rather than a time of withdrawal, it can be a time of passionate engagement and service to the community.
  • The engagement and service is most powerful and satisfying if it’s based on “being” rather than “doing.”

The term elder may be a problem for some.

Elderhostel, an organization founded in 1975 that provides lifelong learning opportunities to adults 50 and older, changed its name to Roads Scholar in 2009. According to their website, “Road” connotes a journey and real-word experience and “Scholar” reflects a deep appreciation for learning.  I suspect that one reason for the name change is that boomers generally don’t relate to “elder.”

A religious organization formed a group of older adults and named it a Community of Elders.  Many members still object to “elder.”

Alaska natives may have come close to defining the elderhood life stage. The identified four characteristics of eldership:  emotional well-being, community engagement, spirituality and physical health.

We continue to struggle with what to call and expect from this extended life period.  It’s more than traditional retirement.  For the moment, let’s try “elderhood.”  Perhaps at some time, it will be a well-accepted life stage that represents our highest aspirations.

Regardless of the term, we need to remember that one day our life will flash before our eyes.  We have to make sure it’s worth watching.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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