Becoming Elders

“Old age enlightens, not simply ourselves . . . but those around us as well.”

– Joan Chitister in The Gift of Years

The Gospel of Mark records the account of the blind man of Bethsaida. Jesus and his disciples had come to that village, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to heal him. Jesus touched the man’s eyes with saliva then asked him, “Can you see anything?” The man responded that he saw people, but they looked like trees walking around. Then Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again; “and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (8:22-25).

Older adults are rather like the blind man. With the second sight of older age, we now see how the pieces of our lives fit together — how all we learned, all we did, all we experienced have molded us into the person we have become.

In former times, our “elders” were keepers of wisdom who led their communities through times of change and evolution. They held the stories that kept communities and society safe and provided touchstones for well-being and a sense of identity. In some Native American cultures, it was the circle of grandmothers who made decisions for the tribe. Not even war could not be declared without the consent of the council of grandmothers known as the Clan Council. 

In her book The Grace in Aging, Kathleen Dowling Singh calls elders to be placeholders in society. “There is no more noble way to spend these years,” she says, “than to become an elder, to bear witness to the world as placeholders for peace, love wisdom and fearlessness” (page 24).

And we can do that with integrity because we have the goods to back it up. We are the children of the polio epidemic of the 1940s and 50s. We remember standing in line to receive the magical vaccine on a sugar cube that had been discovered by Jonas Salk in 1953 (who, in that more generous time, did not ask for a patent on his discovery, saying, “Could you patent the sun?”)

We can still tell you where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated, when the Challenger blew up in space as we watched from our classrooms, when the twin towers fell on September 11. We can say to others: “You will survive. We will survive.”

And we can and must call our society to a more generous life. We are the voices who can and must say, “Stop hurting each other.”

– Marjorie George

Questions for Reflection

In what ways can you be a placeholder in your community?

Is this time of life different than you expected it to be?

What of your lived experience is serving you well at this time of life?

Related Resources


I Become an Elder  by Cathy Carmody

Leaving behind my journey of struggling and racing
through the white water of many rivers,
I become the river, creating my own unique way
. . . read the rest

Elders’ Prayer by Cathy Cohen.

Let our prayers sing out
from heart stream and breath flow
even as our voices grow softer
. . . read the rest .

A Blessing for Old Age by John O’Donohue

May the light of your soul mind you,
May all of your worry and anxiousness
about becoming old be transfigured
. . . read the rest


The Wisdom of Living in Deep Time: A New Frontier by Caryl Ann Casbon

With aging, there is a draw to more solitude and quiet. We long for deep time, where one can venture into the essence of things to discover wisdom, meaning and relatedness. Read the reflection.

Falling Silent by Gerard Thomas Straub

“I am at a kairos time of day, a time when I can give myself a chance to let go of everything I know in order to be carried along by the flow of all I do not know, they very flow of the mystery and true reality of life.” Read the essay.

What Does it Mean to be an Elder? by Brad Breeding

Brad Breeding, president of My Life Site, introduces articles and podcasts about aging today. Being an elder is a stage of life, not an age of life, he says. We have lost the benefits it brings to our society. Read the article.

Eldering in the Age of Consumption by Sharon Blackie and Stephen Jenkinson

Blackie includes ancient wisdom from her Celtic heritage in her understanding of what it means to be an elder. “To the Celts, death was inextricably intertwined with life. Every month the moon died and was reborn. Every winter the Sun died and was reborn. The tide came in and the tide receded. To think that you could avoid these natural cycles was not only unthinkable but undesirable. Out of all the dying, something precious and new is always born.” Read the article.

Eldering and Relational Wisdom

Ideas and approaches for developing an intergenerational community of practice. From Erica Dorn in collaboration with Relational Wisdom Gathering, The Good Works Institute, Conscious Elders Network, and Sage Arts. Read more.

For more resources, see our reading list.