Musings: Seniors versus Elders

Chuck DurettAn acquaintance of mine, Chris Zimmerman, owns and operates a couple of assisted-care facilities in Alameda, California. He inherited one at age 23 and subsequently built a second one. He’s now 60, and despite the limitations of an assisted care environment, he has developed astute theories about seniors and elders.

Like many observers of the cultural scene, he agrees that seniors today are given little respect, but he also believes that they have to earn the respect that they’d like to command. He argues that seniors have abdicated their role as respected elders. Being an elder once meant earning respect by playing an active role in teaching younger generations, a role that’s seldom fulfilled today. He believes that seniors earn elderhood by helping younger generations understand how to be accountable.

Being an elder once meant
earning respect by playing
an active role in teaching
younger generations, a role
that’s seldom fulfilled today.

Helping People Become Responsible

When Katie and I lived in Emeryville Cohousing, there were two very capable elders who not only reminded people when it was time to sign up to cook, but actually signed you up to cook dinner if you forgot. “Oh, you can’t cook that day? Then sign up for a day you can, OK?” I know, because I was one of those “forgetful” people always on the go, overwhelmed by the daily demands of clients, wife and child. I wanted to perform my cohousing duties, but I felt more accountable to the above three. The elders didn’t care if you looked at them funny when they reminded you or if you complained vehemently or even if you stomped off like a child. They had long outgrown the compelling need to be popular that so often plagues younger folks. They helped people become responsible, whether they were used to accountability or not.

Those two elders made it clear to me that my responsibility also included the other members of my community – those to whom I had promised to cook. Consequently, I never missed a rotation. Unless you live in a community with true elders (not just seniors), it’s impossible to imagine a young person (except one born with an old soul) making other young people accountable, much less seniors. Young people are too worried about being unpopular, or about hurting someone’s feelings, or being perceived as being disrespectful to seniors. Consequently, the wonderful young person in our cohousing community whose job it is to get everyone signed up to cook dinner is in a difficult if not untenable position.

Hitting Your Car with Her Cane

When I was a kid living in Downieville, California (population 325), you wouldn’t consider honking your car horn after dark (unless, of course, it was an emergency). If you did, an elder would have no qualms about slamming the large palm of his hand on the hood of your car and shouting, “Hey, kid, we don’t do that around here” – even if he had known you all your life. Or, another elder would feel entitled to hit your car with her cane if you did that. You’d never consider turning around in someone’s driveway with your lights on.

Elders garner our respect because they do the thing that young people can’t do: they affirm the mores and norms of a society, the spoken and unspoken agreements. They enforce the social contract. Consequently, when I get together with my contemporaries from Downieville, we still talk about the old days and the elders of our youth. The same dozen names of elders come up over and over again. It’s clear to me why. The people I tend to respect the most are those who help me see the bigger picture — even when it’s not popular. In short, they help you see that it’s not all about you.

Elders garner our respect
because they do the thing
that young people can’t do:
they affirm the mores
and norms of a society.

Elevating the Status of Elders

Sure, there were many more Downieville seniors than those dozen, but the others were just old people who didn’t particularly contribute this way – they were definitely not “elders.” You earn respect by transitioning from senior to elder. However, the elders of Downieville modeled not only what it means to be a sage member of the community, but also a citizen. They elevated the status of all the seniors. Besides modeling elderhood, they reinforced the importance of respecting other seniors — elders or not.

Elders teach young children not only how to fish and tie a fly, but also the importance of good manners. As we get older, they model how to raise children, calmness when it’s time to be calm and forthrightness when it’s time to be forthright. “Did you mean to drop that piece of paper?” “Did you realize that you were yelling into your cell phone?”

Elders help reinforce the agreements – even if they didn’t agree with the agreements in the first place. Then they help float a new and improved proposed solution, but in the mean time they say this is what we’re doing. I don’t know how you hold a society together without elders. Who else will hold the social contract? The police? Young people?

Earning Respect

The way I see it, respect is right there to be earned. A pair of seniors in our cohousing community earned my respect when they took the elder position at the last meeting by saying, “Look, in case you forgot, this is how you recycle,” or when Nira reminds folks to do their common house chores. With pressure from spouses, kids, jobs, clients and bosses, there are so many things that younger people forget – important things that help stitch a society together, but are forgotten or aren’t as immediate — the kind of immediacy experienced when a three-year-old cries and has to be responded to. Seniors remind us how to behave.

For the reasons above, some would take issue with the idea of senior-only cohousing. But some seniors don’t want to live with toddlers or young children. Therefore, senior cohousing broadens the possibilities for seniors who don’t want to live with kids. It means that elders in senior cohousing can play a more meaningful role in the larger society, bolstered in confidence by the reinforcement, role modeling and education they receive from their peers. Seniors also have the very dire need to elder each other — help each other figure out this whole life deal and, for example, how to live more lightly on the planet while at the same time enhancing their quality of life.

One evening a couple of months ago, I invited everyone over 50 in our community to have this conversation in our common house. It was a huge success. Everyone started out talking about how others were not respecting them, without reflecting on their own actions or assumptions. But as the conversation segued toward introspection and people realized that maybe some of it is about me, then true growth occurred. It was one of the most touching and heartfelt conversations I have ever had in cohousing.

In community,
Chuck

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