In many cultures, elders have been respected for their wealth of experience and wisdom, playing a pivotal and much needed role within the structure of the extended family system and the community at large. Ageing was welcomed as a maturing, a ripening into the fullness of who we are, and preparation for the passage of passing over which was not an end but just part of the cycle of return.
There was no concept of retirement as one lived in response to the changing seasons of life. When we were more in tune with our cycles, getting older was seen as a natural evolution, it was an accepted phase built on the foundation of life experiences. The role of kaumātua was seen as the natural progression to a deeper level of responsibility as the preserver of familial values and traditions along with giving guidance and passing on knowledge to the younger generations.
With the reduction of the extended family to the modern nuclear family, and further with the recent technological age of the internet, these roles have diminished and the elderly have become more and more isolated. As the western world has moved from marae and village to city mentality, there is no longer the same interactive co-operation but instead a fight for personal survival which introduced self-sufficiency, independence, competitiveness and a reliance on the vitality of youth. For those elders who still live and participate actively within an extended family their role can largely be as carers of younger children rather than a broader traditional role of holder and advisor of the whole.
In today’s society where we glorify youthfulness and independence, old age is largely viewed negatively as a decline, an end, a loss of youth, vitality and good looks. The focus tends to shift to the deteriorating function and appearance of the body and a life winding down to eventual dependency.
Retirement from paid employment can mark the end of one’s commitment to fully participate in society and this shift from being actively engaged in contributing to family and or community can bring a sense of having less worth or value. For others, the feeling of having ‘done my bit’ and therefore deserving of a retired life of peace and quiet can be an expectation of how one lives out the rest of their days.
Has this view on ageing and the position of the elderly come about because elders have lost the understanding of their role in how our families and communities have evolved? Have elders lost their purpose and with that put aside the important and continuing contribution they still have to make?
What if how we feel inside and how much we value ourselves on a daily basis determines the grace with which we age? An elder who has claimed this phase of life is granted respect because people see the reflection of wisdom, authority, and love which is also in themselves. A true elder reflects to us the potential that we have - an Equalness.
It is this wisdom and grace of elders that is so needed, effortlessly crossing the boundaries of race, age and religion and there for all to access and share. Elders accessing and living this wisdom have the opportunity to dissolve the deeply entrenched beliefs held around ageing.
Walking in the grace and wisdom of a true elder brings a much needed and missing piece to our societal fabric and each elder has the responsibility to fully claim and offer this to our families and communities.
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