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I’ve heard a couple smart people recently say our development as humans used to be based upon moving from growing up to growing old, but it’s now from growing up to growing whole. Chip Conley

Who doesn’t remember being young and lying about their age at least once? Older meant more access, clout, gravitas, power. Today, older isn’t perceived as better and people lie in the opposite direction for fear of ageism. And the term “elder” has been misappropriated to conjure up images of Moses or the infirm. Call someone elderly today and it’s like you’re suggesting they had a personal relationship with George Washington himself.

It’s time to liberate the “elder” from the “elder-ly.” With midlife becoming a marathon, stretching from 35 to 75, many of us find ourselves in late midlife feeling increasingly independent as empty nesters and maybe less fixated on our work and, yet, we also have a desire to remain relevant and to give back. Today, the average age for someone moving into a nursing home is 81 (compared to 65 in the 1950s), so there are a lot of people who qualify as elders, but are not yet elderly.

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It’s increasingly popular to reassure these “modern elders” that they can continue to be independent. After all, 60 is the new 40. I’ve heard a couple smart people recently say our development as humans used to be based upon moving from growing up to growing old, but it’s now from growing up to growing whole. “Whole” in the sense that we aren’t dependent and are still in the process of fully ripening. In fact, at age 57, and if I live to be 98 (the age that life expectancy calculators predict for me), I’m not even halfway through my adult years yet. This is good news for society, and for our newly modern elders, as it means we’ll continue to play a vital role. I may be able to declare my independence for many more decades, yet this is missing an important ingredient of what it means to age.

Ecologists tell us that a young tree grows stronger when it’s planted in an area with older trees. The roots of the young tree are able to follow the pathways created by those of older trees. Over time, the roots of many trees can graft themselves to each other, creating an intricate, interdependent foundation hidden below the surface. Thus, the whole forest becomes healthier, stronger, more resilient. The same is true for people; we are stronger when we are all connected.

So how do we create a healthier “forest” in our later life? We become more intentional about the pathways we carve for those we leave behind: at home, at work, in our communities. I love this delicate African proverb: “When an elder dies, it’s like a library has burned down.” Many indigenous communities couldn’t conceive of their cultural survival without elders, much in the same way we might have a hard time imagining life without books or music or movies. In the digital era, libraries – and elders – aren’t quite as popular as they used to be. But, both are critical conduits for wisdom across the ages. If you keep your wisdom to yourself, it dies with you. But if you can lend your gifts of age to the next generation, that wisdom will never grow old.

In their book, The Joy of Old, John S. Murphy and Frederic M. Hudson suggest there are three peaks in life: physical, which happens in one’s early 20s; economic, which may happen in one’s 40s or 50s; and human, which happens later in life. During our physical peak, we are our bodies; during our economic peak, we are our work; and during our human peak, we are ourselves. Society often judges people in the second half of life based on a standard that venerates youthful bodies and high-octane, high-earning careers. But, the true value of the elder is in their humanity; and how they enhance the humanity of those who surround them. This becomes an even more critical part of the human condition as our young people become more attached to their digital devices. They often know the face of their iPhone better than the face of their best friend. And, for some, their iPhone may be their best friend.
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There’s an unspoken pact that lies between the generations, touching everything from genes to values. We are like a conduit to the future, but are we conscious of how we’re shaping that future? Every life is rooted in our ancestors and you and I aren’t just elders-in-training, we’re also ancestors-in-training. What gifts will we leave our descendants?
I hope my gift is, “I am not Alexa.” As we increasingly talk to our appliances, it’s important to remind the young ones that we have a soul and Alexa doesn’t. Part of our wisdom relates to what life was like pre-computer when the word “connection” had a whole different meaning.

Do you fear old age?

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