When an anthropology professor asked 50 college students for words they associated with getting old, they offered these: frail, dependent, angry, unattractive, cheap, slow drivers, lonely, useless, stubborn, senile, humourless, burdensome.
Oy. Thankfully, some students also came up with words like this: wise, storytellers, experienced. But they were clearly outnumbered. It’s no wonder that 60 is the new 40, and 70 the new 50! With messaging like this, who would want to get old? We would rather defy and deny our age.
Ageism is deeply embedded in our Western culture, not only in the minds of the young, but also in those growing older. Consider the fact that these college students will one day grow old. How will they encounter their own aging?
Since most of us were ageist when we were young, this affects how we see ourselves in our later years. As we peer into the mirror, we may be horrified to see an old man or woman peering back.
In Jewish tradition, and indeed in many traditional cultures, old age demands respect. “Mipnei seiva takum,” commands our Torah – you must rise before the aged. The etymology of the word zaken (elder), according to the Talmud, is “one who has acquired wisdom.” Might we mine our own Jewish tradition to help us redefine, and even embrace, our later years?
Toward the end of Abraham’s life, the Torah text records, “And Abraham was now old, advanced in years.” The Midrash notes that although there were many Biblical figures before Abraham who lived far longer than he, this is the first time that the text uses the word zaken, meaning old.
A Midrashic tale then unfolds, describing how Abraham pleaded with God that he be made to look old. Abraham lamented, “When a man and his son enter a town, none know whom to honour! But if you will crown (the father) with (the appearance of) old age, one will know whom to honour.” God replies that he has asked wisely, and thus the markers of old age begin with Abraham, signified by the very first Biblical usage of the word zaken.
Abraham is desperate to look old, because he knows it will bring him respect and honour. This is a far cry from our modern attempts to hide our grey hair and wrinkles. A friend recently remarked to me that she had earned each one of her grey hairs and has no intention of dying them. Indeed, these are what the Midrash calls the “crowns” of old age.
For most of us, ageism is neither new nor surprising. However, it is more important than ever to acknowledge its pervasiveness, and to endeavour to correct it.
According to a 2015 study , the world’s older population continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. Today, 8.5 percent of people worldwide (617 million) are aged 65 and over, and this percentage is projected to jump to nearly 17 percent by 2050.
What’s more, the global population of the “oldest old” – people aged 80 and older – is expected to more than triple by 2050, growing to 446.6 million.
Simply put, more and more of us are becoming old, and the world needs to be ready. I wonder if our own Jewish community is prepared for this sea change.
Thankfully, we offer elder care and nursing facilities to provide support for the fragility that old age can bring. But many older people see retirement as the beginning of a new and exciting stage in life, and they are still eager to contribute their skills, experience and knowledge. We focus so much of our funding and program resources on the young (and of course we must – they are our future!), but this misses a fast-growing group of our community members who may become underutilized and overlooked.
If we take our cues from our surrounding ageist culture, if we dismiss those in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond because of their advanced age, we lose out on the potential contributions of a large part of our community.
What would our community be like if we dedicated funding and training to cultivate our communal elders? As we grow older, we may still choose to dye our hair or use anti-wrinkle creams, and we may spend more time on the golf course. But we need to encourage our elders to do much more than that. Indeed, 70 is not the new 50, nor should 70 year olds need to compete with 50 year olds for the same jobs or lay leadership roles. Seventy year olds bring more experience, deeper perspective and something unique to the table, from which our community can benefit.
One who grows old does not automatically become an elder; one needs to work at it. There is a burgeoning field of spiritual eldering, including books, workshops, podcasts and new initiatives.
One former pulpit rabbi, Rabbi Laura Geller in Los Angeles, has dedicated her post-retirement years to researching and creating new models for aging in our Jewish community, in order to, in her words, “help the baby-boomer generation discover how to get good at getting older and giving back.”
Similarly, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote that we must move “from Aging to Sage-ing” in his book by the same name. He outlines a process by which an older person can become an elder.
In my synagogue this past year, I offered a class that drew on this growing field of study. Together with my students, many of them more than twice my age, we explored ways to engage in life reflection, what Reb Zalman calls “harvesting one’s life,” collecting the wisdom that one has accumulated through many years of experience, in order to pass that on to the next generations.
The men and women in my class were truly my sages, and showed me that indeed, in our later years, there is still so much potential for one’s own growth and learning. For example, after we had spent some time studying passages from the Passover hagaddah, one student remarked, “After 75 years, I think it’s starting to gel.”
Part of being an effective elder is cultivating the ability not only to teach well, but to listen well. Too many of us under 40 have heard our older counterparts try to impose their ideas, insisting that what worked in the past is what will work in the future. A young Jewish leader will cringe when the phrase, “In my day…” is followed by a precise prescription of what we need to do.
An effective elder is someone who can value the voice and vision of the younger generations, while serving as a flexible resource and support to new leadership. But by the same token, we younger folks also need to be better listeners, to be open to the wisdom of those who have been around for a lot longer.
I heard from my own students that older people often feel invisible, not heard, dismissed by their children and grandchildren’s generations as being “out of touch”. We need to recognize that those who came before us have experience and understanding that can help us meet our own challenges more effectively.
Jewish tradition teaches, “One who learns from elders, it is like drinking good aged wine.” We need our elders to spend time distilling their wisdom, and bottling it into a drinkable and delicious contribution. Then it is up to us younger folks to be open and willing to imbibe. May we all have l’chaim together!