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You are here: Home Resources E-Newsletter Archive Winter 2009, Issue V Older or Elder?

Older or Elder?

An article by Edith Kusnic (Journeys Elder and Program Coordinator for Embracing Elderhood) about navigating from adult to Elder in a meaningful way when our culture mostly offers us images of "Seniors" or "Olders."

By Edith Kusnic, Program Coordinator for Embracing Elderhood and Journeys Elder


When I turned 50, I found my thoughts pulled increasingly toward the future.  I began to ask a question: What is my elder work?  Maybe I was a bit on the young side to ask such a question, but once the question surfaced, it would not go away.  There were all sorts of practical dimensions to the question.  My youngest child was moving into middle adolescence and soon I would no longer have child-raising responsibilities.  I was self-employed with very little retirement savings so I knew I needed to find my way to work so that I could sustain well into my seventies if I lived that long.  But beyond these practical issues were the more substantive ones:  What has my life and work taught me that I can use to create my elder work?  What am I going to do when I grow up?  Whoops!  I already am grown up. 

I had always believed that we each have a particular gift or set of gifts to offer, that we each have a unique purpose to fulfill.  But in my early fifties as the recognition that I was entering a new life stage began to sink in, I began to confront the emerging thought that I was running out of time – that if I didn’t find my purpose soon AND ENACT IT, it would be forever lost.

Earlier, I lived with the working assumption that I would eventually get to some of the things I had put off to some unknown future time.  But as I began really to experience the finiteness of my life, a new urgency began to emerge.  All the many questions began to fold into one BIG question that began to murmur like a mantra in my mind:  If not now, when?

This ten-year process of allowing these questions to stir my life and challenge it at the core has led me on a remarkable and serendipitous journey.  It led me first to going on a vision quest with Journeys.  After sending my two daughters on a Coming of Age program and convincing my brother to send my nephew, I realized I needed to experience a Journeys program myself.  Although I didn’t get the quick and easy answer to my elder work question, at least in a form I could recognize, what I did get was the amazing experience of being cradled and cared for by the Mysterious Universe in her guise as the natural world and a compelling commitment to the work of Rite of Passage Journeys.  In fact, I came back in awe of the work of Journeys.  If this was the kind of experience I had so blithely sent my children and my nephews to have, it was something every child should have. 

I don’t have time to tell the tale of all the amazing experiences and connections that have grown over the past ten years as my quest for my elder work has unfolded.  There was learning to be a guide for adult quests and working in various capacities to help guide Journeys and keep it alive through its own transitions over that same time period.  There was discovering the work of Joanna Macy and Bill Plotkin and deepening my understanding of what lies at the heart of the work of honoring life’s transitions and helping people navigate them.  And there was finding my own elder mentors who began to help me create a more concrete and full imagination of elderhood and an understanding of the importance of making a conscious choice to become an elder rather than just growing older.

As this personal path to elderhood has unfolded, I have found myself increasingly attentive to the kind of images of elderhood that exist in our culture, or more accurately, the incredible lack of them.  Certainly there are lots of images of growing older.  I can easily conjure the pictures I’ve seen on TV ads of happy “seniors,” living in self-contained “retirement” communities, separated from the rest of society--their lives filled with hobbies, leisure activities, and other ways of passing the time.  Or I can see pictures of seniors-to-be (the vast Baby-Boomer generation), not worrying about their future finances because they chose the “right” investment advisor and soon, they too will be able to retire to play for the rest of their lives.  

But never, in mainstream images or stories about “seniors” have I heard the word “elder” used.  

Now, I am not anti-play or anti-leisure.  I love to read mystery novels, putter in my garden, and hang out with friends and family.  I also know that as I age, I’m slowing down more and more and don’t have the energy I used to have.  That is not what bothers me about these portrayals of seniors.  What bothers me is that they narrow, rather than broaden our picture of what it means to be in the second half of our lives.  They leave out so much – our desire for engagement, our urge to be useful and make a contribution, our instincts for nurturing and mentoring, our yearning for authenticity and community, not to mention the gifts and wisdom that the blood, sweat and tears of our lives have been honing.  But for many, many people those mainstream media images is all they can imagine for their own older years--a gradual decline in capability and a gradual exclusion from the mainstream of life, made palatable by the smiling couples enjoying their “senior” years in pleasant leisure.  For many others who desire and aim for a more meaningful role, there are few cultural supports to assist and support us in following that path.

I have been lucky, however.  My path toward elderhood brought me elder mentors, people a little further along the path than I am who have helped illuminate my path and whose lives inspire my imagination of what elderhood can mean and be. 

Although there are others as well, here I want to pay a special tribute to two of them:  Stan Crow and Fred Lamphear. Stan and Fred were the co-creators, with me, of Journey’s elder retreat,  Stepping into Elderhood (Previously called “When Autumn Comes”).  Bringing rites of passage work to youths and creating and carrying Journeys for so many years was not enough for Stan.  In what too soon became his final years he helped us begin to apply what we have been learning through our work with youth to work with adults and elders. 

Fred brought his own sense of urgency to this work, a sense of mission to help cultivate a generation of Earth Elders, olders who carry a sense of responsibility for the future and who seek to mentor those who will build that future.  Fred also brought his recent ALS diagnosis to this work and a personal commitment to face his inevitable decline and death with courage and in a way that helps us all experience the wheel of life more consciously and with less fear and denial than is usual in our society.

In designing and conducting Stepping into Elderhood in 2008, Stan and Fred helped me begin to put words to my personal search for what I want it to mean to be an elder and have helped me stretch my imagination beyond the traditional images that confront us everyday.  In our design work, they challenged me and supported me and together we found the heart of Journeys’ work with elders.  I am so very grateful to both of them. 

Unfortunately, neither of them was able to help facilitate this year’s Stepping into Elderhood but the conversations I had with each of them over the last year helped me gain confidence in my ability to lead the retreat and helped me learn from our experience in 2008.   But this wonderful universe of ours also brought Linda Vogelsong to the work and she jumped in at the last moment to help me facilitate, bringing with her a whole set of wonderful contributions.  Linda had been a participant in 2008 and wanted to intern to learn to facilitate it.

I came away from the retreat this year with renewed commitment to bring this kind of elder retreat to more and more people and, in fact, to envision other course formats that will help cultivate and grow a new imagination in our culture about the role of elders and how to help people along the path to stepping fully into that role.  I’ve come to see the central challenge to participants as this:  Imagine that you have been preparing your whole life to be an elder.  All you’ve learned, all you have come to know is needed for this next stage.  Who will you be as an elder?

Traditional pictures of getting old in America are pictures of life in slow decline.  The climax of the story has long since past.  But what if we saw it in a totally different way.  What if we saw the story of our lives as stories leading TOWARD becoming elders—with elderhood as the climax of the story?  And in that way of thinking, what is the work of the elder? What do the people need from their elders?  And, in particular, what is being called for at this moment in our shared history?  And, of course, what are the challenges for the elder and what does the elder need of his or her people?

These are the kinds of questions we’ve been exploring the last two years at Stepping into Elderhood as well as within Journeys as we think about how we might better serve elders with Journeys programs and contribute to fostering a culture of conscious elderhood.  What kinds of spaces can we create that will give elders and elders-to-be a place to play with this new imagination of elderhood and ask themselves questions about what it might mean in their own lives.

But something unexpected happened at this year’s Stepping into Elderhood.  We ended up being a group of seven people who spanned only a seven-year age-range.   Although we hadn’t planned for this, it offered us a unique perspective that has opened another door, a door into thinking beyond elders to developing programs for other stages and/or transitions for adults.  I believe we will always have the adult quest, but over the years we’ve heard from so many people who are drawn to Journeys but are not ready to make a 10-day commitment or able to think about a three-day wilderness vision fast.  For the heart of Journeys to have a broader reach, we will need to design programs that are more accessible to more adults.  Our work with the elder’s retreat offers many lessons both for expanding our work with elders and extending it to adults at some other of life’s crossroads We are excited about the possibilities of this work for the future and are deeply indebted to Stan and Fred for their pioneering work that forged a trail for us travel.

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