by Martina Breen
One of the most significant cultural transitions around the world is the demographic shift in many counries toward an older population, with a declining birthrate and people living longer than ever before. This evolving ageing population presents both challenges and opportunities. The challenges can appear daunting, and receive much more attention than do the opportunities. In this article I write about the possibilities for personal and cultural enrichment that lie before us if we are willing to stretch our thinking and embrace an evolving new understanding of the gifts of the ageing process.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing, poses the question of why should we live beyond the time of begetting and raising our children? He goes on to state: “ If we do live longer, then nature must have a task. There must be a purpose. The purpose is to hothouse consciousness, generation by generation; so that the older generation can transmit something to the younger.”
So, while ageing is a natural process that does indeed involve physical changes and a gradual decline in physical abilities, Eldering or Sage-ing, on the other hand, is an intentional approach to aging that involves actively seeking out opportunities for growth and transformation in life’s later chapters. It’s about getting older with intentionality, resilience, and grace. It involves not only addressing the physical and mental aspects of aging, but also the spiritual aspects such as finding meaning and purpose in the lives we have lived, as well as exploring and visioning the rich possibilities for the time we have left. Rather than viewing ageing as a period of decline and loss, it can be a time to look at it as a unique and precious opportunity for growth, wisdom, and personal transformation.
Rather than allowing ourselves to just grow old, we can make a decision in late midlife to intentionally envision and work toward a new life stage—a conscious elderhood.
This approach to healthy aging aligns with the wisdom shared in Reb Zalman’s book and Ron Pevny’s Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, along with books like Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. They each offer us profound lessons about the value of inner growth, personal transformation, and the importance of having a sense of community as we grow into our elder years.
A key message in these and many other empowering writings about ageing is that as we need to let go of being an adolescent to become an adult, likewise to become an elder we need to have completed our adulting. Elderhood is a distinct phase of life, given to us by the grace of longevity. There is a newfound freedom in embracing our age—choosing to live consciously and intentionally. By modelling conscious aging and embodying its principles in our own lives, we can inspire the people in our lives to do the same and create a more compassionate and fulfilling world for ourselves and others.
Ron’s book is a guidebook in exploring the aging process with awareness, curiosity, and purpose. He writes extensively around the personal and spiritual growth that occurs as we age and he models his own teaching in his own personal life. He says that this growth that’s available to us as we age is not necessarily a given; it requires a deliberate effort to engage with our own aging process and to cultivate qualities like self-awareness, resilience, and wisdom.
He teaches that conscious eldering involves several key practices. One is self-reflection, which involves taking time to reflect on our life experiences, our values, and our goals for the future. Another is community-building, which involves connecting with others who share our interests and values, and who can support us on our journey of growth. Another practice is commitment to service, which involves using our skills and experience to make a positive impact in our communities and the world at large.
I experienced these teachings first hand by attending Ron’s Choosing Conscious Elderhood Retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, in May of this year. Ron and co-facilitator Barbara Roth skilfully created a safe holding space for 13 elder questors. We met on a Sunday afternoon at this magnificent high desert retreat center in New Mexico and with a deepening process of exploring, reflecting and sharing, we created a community that was the lived experience of conscious eldering. In our week together, we learned experientially that when we connect with others and share our interests and our values, when we have community time and solo time, when we have ample time in nature to learn from Mother Earth, and when we connect through ritual and ceremony, we create a rich fertile ground where we meet the deeper parts of ourselves. And when we are connected to ourselves, we naturally look to see how we can serve others.
The need for wise elderhood in our current world of crisis cannot be overstated. In modern society, the value of elders has been diminished, along with their voices. The cultural narrative too often focuses on youth, and the value of experience and wisdom is overlooked. Many older adults have negative beliefs about aging, such as feeling that they are less valued or less capable as they get older.
The voices of our elders need to be reclaimed and supported. Most of us are well aware that ageing can come with significant life transitions such as retirement, changes in health, loss of sense of meaning and purpose in life, and loss of loved ones, and that these are often accompanied by emotional challenges such as grief, anxiety, or depression. We need to be reminded that the conscious elders of any community have developed a unique set of skills, knowledge, and wisdom about how to negotiate transitions, to develop resilience, and to deal with emotional and spiritual challenges, that can guide all of us towards a better future.
The elders are the ones who have lived through the ups and downs of life, accumulated a wealth of knowledge, and gained invaluable insights that can guide society through these challenging times. They possess a level of wisdom that can only be acquired through years of life experience, and it is this wisdom that is sorely needed by contemporary society, and perhaps most of all by young people, our future, whose world views are shaped by what they see modelled by the adults and elders around them.
I do believe that the United States has progressed in this area. In western Europe, where I live, it is time for us to finally acknowledge, not only the value of our elders, but to endeavour to grow into elderhood ourselves. As a psychotherapist, I’m acutely aware that it’s important that I become a conscious elder myself, in order to better support conscious aging in my clients.
We helpers, are in a unique position to model conscious aging for our clients by embodying the principles of conscious aging in our own lives. It is necessary for us to continue to grow and develop, not just as professionals, but as ageing human beings. Only when much greater numbers
of us value ourselves as elders, will humanity truly harness the power of wisdom to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable world for all.
Martina Breen, M.A. is a Gestalt Psychotherapist, Supervisor, Spiritual Director and a Certified Sage-ing Leader (CSLÒ) She works in private practice in Ireland and internationally facilitates programmes on conscious living, ageing and dying . She will be co-facilitating a Choosing Conscious Elderhood with Ron Pevny in Kiltegan, County Wicklow, Ireland September 11 – 17. There are three spaces still available. For retreat details, visit the Ireland retreat page.