The Value of Elders
When I started thinking about this article it was in relation to cultural differences. But then I realized, through the ages all cultures have cherished their elders. My points of reference are from my own heritage, which is Native American on one side, and from the society in which I was raised. Hawai’i in those days was a very healthy mixture of predominantly Hawaiian, Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese and Chinese. All those cultures cherished their elders. Unless it was absolutely unavoidable, no one sent their old folks to nursing homes! That was an embarrassment!
So why did we cherish our elders? They couldn’t work, or at least, not as hard as everyone else. Their financial contribution was nil or minimal. They took up space. Often times they nagged and were cranky. What value did they give for the care and maintenance given them?
Community and tribal elders had their positions because of the vast, useful wealth of knowledge they had to share with the community/tribe. They gave realistic guidance that contributed to the well being of the society. They helped the society navigate in relationships with other communities and cultures they encountered. They helped the society avoid making some of the mistakes that had been made in the past. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in Reason in Common Sense. (No. Plato didn’t say it. Santayana did.)
The same holds true for all elders! When we are younger we live our lives like they will never end. We are very concerned with what others think of us, so those of us with some sense tend to keep our mouths shut when it comes to giving advice. But as we age we mature. We come to realize we don’t know everything. We don’t have much in the way of a social agenda so we feel more free to speak our minds.
We also have more time. Time to appreciate children. Time to sit, talk, share stories, share our experiences and how they affected our lives. We have time and love to give that we didn’t think we had before. This has always been the value of elders. Sharing their experiences in story form. The Native Americans knew and appreciated this. Hence winter time was given over to story telling. Children remember stories better than lectures. Those stories allow the younger generation to learn from the older.
Every child takes in and digests the information in their own way. For instance the story of grandpa winning $5000 and buying a piece of land on which he raised his family independently. To the outdoorsy, independent child this would be an encouragement to pursue a similar path. A child who tends toward material comfort, might think grandpa was crazy. “I’d buy stocks or gold!” The story has encouraged each of the children to look to the future and give it serious thought. They’ve learned a valuable lesson.
When I was little I had an “aunt” who was into herbal medicines. She would tell us stories about plants and animals and how they all work for us in some way because the Great Spirit charged us with caring for them. Every plant and animal had a way to repay us for our care. Years later I was hiking and took a bad fall. I scraped my legs up pretty good and was bleeding all over myself. I glanced up and saw a large spider web in a tree. “Ah-Ha!” I thought as I grabbed a handful of the web and spread it out over my scrapes. The bleeding stopped and I went on my way. You see, one of my aunty’s stories had been about how the spider provides us with a means to stop bleeding.
I’m sure there is some smart ass out there who is thinking, “Yeah, and those Native Americans left their old and sick behind to die alone a lot of the time!” Ignorance, my friend. If you knew anything of the cultures you’d know that this, too, was an honorable act. When times were hard it was not unusual for groups to move about in search of better hunting or farming grounds. If there was an elder who felt their time was near, they would ask to be left behind.
Think about it. I am old, tired and not able to be of any further use to my family. What can I teach by making this choice?
- It is a gift to sacrifice what I know is a limited time left to me in order to free up resources so that someone younger and healthier might survive and go on to help the family.
- I want to die with dignity.
- I want to keep giving to my family as long as I can.
- I will contribute to their well being in any way I can.
- I can distribute my belongings to those I want to have them in person and share a moment with each person.
- My family can learn the lesson that sometimes the best way they can love a person is to let them go.
- We all have the right, no, the obligation to make the most important choices in our lives rather than putting that burden on someone else.
- I will face my fate with dignity, thereby earning the respect of my family.
- Even in death I will nurture the land and creatures that have nurtured me.
Oh yeah. They left the old, sick and tired behind when they were asked to. And they never forgot the lessons each of those elders taught!
Elders have so much value hidden inside their often decrepit bodies. And we throw that away, deny our selves and our children the benefits of their experience, every time we choose not to keep them in our homes but send them to an elder care facility!
I recognize that there are situations where keeping an elder at home is not a choice. I feel sorry for those who must make that choice! What I am saying is: If there is a choice, it should be to keep our seniors at home, to live out their days among their loved ones, sharing their wisdom (be it great or small) with us and our children!