The word “Elder” is becoming the vogue term for people over 60 or,
in some cases, even younger. I think it is a mistake as well as
inaccurate to make “Elder” synonymous with having reached a certain
age. First of all, being an Elder is a role, not a fact of biology.
Moreover, it is a role that exists in the context of community. The
word itself distinguishes a relationship between the Elder and members
of their community.
I see several criteria that must be met before one can assume the role of Elder.
The first is that the individual must be a person whose life and
presence is worthy of respect by others. I can’t imagine a criminal or
an insane person being deemed an Elder in the context of most societies.
Second is that the Elder must be someone who has assumed a level of
responsibility and concern for the community he or she serves. A person
who basically doesn’t give a damn or is cynical isn’t likely to be
related to as an Elder.
Finally, I think that the Elder must be engaged in active and
relevant conversations concerning the affairs and issues of the
community. A spectator cannot be an effective or respected Elder.
I note that we are appending “Elder” as an adjective to many other
terms as an indication of age. We have ‘elderbloggers’, ‘elder
statesmen’, ‘elder citizens’— I’ve even begun to hear the state of
‘older age’ being called ‘elderhood’. I think it’s important that we
use the word ‘elder’ with care, so that we don’t lose the distinction
and the understanding that one earns the role of Elder and that no one
is entitled to it by virtue of their age alone.
I am of the view that we need Elders today. We need people who have
committed themselves to serving their communities as teachers, mentors,
coaches and ‘keepers’ of the stories that maintain and enrich our
values and culture over time. We need people who’ve earned the right to
speak and to be listened to with a deep regard for their experience and
with the confidence that their motives are always for the good of the
I don’t think Elders are infallible, but I believe that anyone worthy of that role will be the first to admit mistakes.
At 64, I am old enough to be an Elder. Today I am declaring my
commitment to being of service to my community and the world for the
rest of my life.
Now call me Elder.