Elders: In Depth
- Bridging the Eldervoid
Bridging the Eldervoid
Can we create a society that cherishes its elders?
I remember getting off the school bus in Caracas, Venezuela, when I was about 7, to find my grandfather running across the field. He was dressed in his Italian collared shirt and tailored trousers, his stylish silver hair reflecting the tropical afternoon sun, playing soccer with the kids who lived in my apartment building.
My friend’s grandmother also lived with her family on the 11th floor. We called her abuelita, and when she made her signature buñuelos topped with powdered sugar, we knew it was an invitation for us children to sit around her kitchen table and share stories with her. Some Sundays, we would leisurely gather downstairs in the common area for barbecues. At these long tables little children, teens, young people, and older ones all had a seat.
These days, I realize these grandparents were showing me what it looks like to be an elder. Not just in how my nonno took care of his personal appearance, or that movement and communal meals are part of a good life. They were also there for us—not just for their biological grandchildren, but for all of us.
When I was 6, my nonno took me across the Atlantic to visit his homeland. It was just the two of us, me with my blue Snoopy purse, he with his weathered leather bag, traveling through the north of Italy to introduce me to the other elders in the family. We visited the wife of his late brother, Zia Sandra, and I vividly remember the warm intonation of her voice when she referred to me as tesoro, “treasure,” and made us delectable banquets of fresh, tender pasta in her tiny kitchen.
My favorite part of the trip was hearing the elders speak Veneto—“the language of the sea,” as it is known. Although my grandfather had mostly spoken Italian to me at home, I loved to be rocked by the rustic, romantic rhythm of the conversations in Veneto. My cells seemed to remember the sounds of those waves and the particular atmosphere that was created when the elders spoke in their mother tongue.
It seemed so casual then, but I now realize this process of rooting me was likely particularly important for my grandfather since he had raised my father in Africa and Latin America, away from his ancestral lands. The significance of those times can be understood through this Venetian proverb: Beati i ultimi se i primi gà creansa, which means, “The ones who come after are blessed by the compassion of the ones who came before.”
I lost my grandfather just two years after our trip. Since then, I’ve had a keen awareness of the special ways elders enrich our lives, and have tried to find different means of staying close to them. I have maintained friendships with elders, studied with them, worked with them, and showcased them as wisdom keepers both in my nature practice courses and my filmmaking work. I have prioritized experiences with them for my daughter and emphasized to her the vital role they play. These are things we can all do. By including elders (and people of all ages for that matter) in meaningful ways in our lives, we can all enrich our experiences, restore our societies, and also revitalize the Earth.
“Elders are people who sew a lot of time into us,” says Mikilani Young, an esteemed Native Hawaiian kumu (spiritual teacher) who is my dear friend. “They aren’t just called elders because they got older. The difference is that they were willing to take on the responsibility of being an elder. They are active in our lives. They show us what it looks like. They are the ones that are setting the example.”
Although my now high-school-aged daughter has enjoyed a close relationship with her grandparents, they live continents away. Growing up in a single-nuclear-family home in California, she has been one step removed from the day-to-day intergenerational experience I had as a child—which has been a real loss. When someone loses their parents, we refer to them as an “orphan,” but there doesn’t seem to be an English word for a society that has lost its elders, or at least its tradition of cherishing them. I’ll call this condition “eldervoid,” if you will.
Human communities flourish on the diverse qualities that each age group brings and reflects for the others. Elders provide ancestral wisdom, conflict resolution, unconditional love, and a profound sense of presence that complement the attributes of adults, youth, and children. Without elders, there is a gap in the transmission of knowledge of how to thrive with the Earth, and a weakening of the intergenerational bonds that hold communities together.
It’s helpful to name eldervoid, so our youth don’t think that’s the way it has to be or has always been. As a nature practice teacher, I have found that naming what we’re doing helps us acknowledge the situation we currently find ourselves in, while making our aspirations for positive change more tangible for ourselves and others. In the same way that we name the challenge, it would be good to find a name, perhaps “wisdom weaving,” for the process of consciously overcoming eldervoid by cultivating meaningful intergenerational experiences and relationships.
“The dominant Western culture’s stance is to look ahead and focus, so we miss what’s behind us and around us,” says Yeshi Neumann, a celebrated white, Jewish midwife of Russian and Polish ancestry, and my close friend. “When we soften our gaze and include our peripheral vision, we can open to all the layers of the Earth.”
Yeshi helped me welcome my daughter into the world and has continued to support, guide, and comfort me in difficult times. She became a grandmother just a couple of years before I became a mother. “It was a huge life passage for me. It put me in a heart space where unconditional love was much more accessible,” Yeshi says of grandparenting. “Not being in charge of details of finding the missing sock or buying the milk freed me to have less anxiety about the outcomes of the day-to-day and [to be] more in touch with unconditional love, not just for my own grandchildren, but for all grandchildren … and actually we are all grandchildren!”
She used her experience and insight to develop a curriculum for the elders of our time, Conscious Grandmothering Workshops. Inspired by the Hopi prophecy—“When the Grandmothers speak the Earth will be Healed”—Yeshi guides women through this significant rite of passage, helping them build community with each other, while reflecting on their past experiences, and present situation, and developing intentions for their future.
Yeshi emphasizes that at every age, humans have something unique to contribute to the whole. She makes it clear that grandmothers and elders are not just ex-mothers or ex-middle-age people; they embody a vital role all their own. Her work creates rituals of acknowledgement and celebration that the dominant culture lacks in these times of transition. “Let’s name and support and grow and cherish what you as grandmothers and elders have to offer.”
Similarly, Mikilani created the Women of Hāloa mentorship program to train and support Hawaiian matriarchs. She does this work because it’s clear to her that the presence of strong, respected elders is connected to the healing of our Earth. “The goal for me is to edify and uplift our Hawaiian matriarchs,” Mikilani says. “We gather once every three months to offer training in practical things like how to compost and regenerative land practices, but also to give them tools from our ancestral ways, whether it’s chanting, dancing, or spiritual teachings. Mostly, it’s about developing relationships so they know they can call or text me anytime they need to speak with someone.”
As communal as the lively, multigenerational apartment building of my childhood was, I knew, even as a girl, that this urban setting wasn’t the context that humans were meant to live in if we wanted to be in good relationship with the Earth. In the remote Pemón or Warao communities we would visit on family trips, for example, people lived in tribal villages on their ancestral lands. Similar to my community, the elders played vital and respected roles of teaching, counseling, and sharing wisdom. One of the main differences, though, was that the Indigenous elders held an unbroken lineage of deep local connection to the land.
This meant that the benefits of reciprocity were not only experienced between older and younger generations, but also between humans and plants, humans and animals, humans and minerals. I felt this difference most palpably in the contrast between our joyful playing in the fresh, clear, vibrant rivers that the Pemón and the Warao stewarded, and the denigrated river who painfully dragged herself through the heart of my own city. Now, of course, we can see this dynamic being played out on a much bigger scale across the world.
When I ask Mikilani how we might create societies that embrace their elders, she says, “Recreating villages and the village mindset around the Indigenous people; they still know how to hold that eldership role.”
“In the village where elders are respected, the Earth is respected, because the Earth is the elder,” Mikilani says. “For me, Mauna Kea is the elder. As we take care of her—her water, her plants, her mycelium, her microbes—she takes care of us.” This kind of reciprocal care necessarily shifts the way we think about health—for our bodies, for our communities, and for our environment.
“Women are the custodians of the spiritual as well as physical health of the entire humankind,” says Dr. Ifeoma Ikenze, DiHom, an acclaimed integrative health practitioner. “If they themselves are not conscious of this fact, then they cannot fulfill their true function, and we end up with a society that is sick in body and spirit.”
Growing up, my mother complemented conventional medicine with more ancestral modalities, and as a mother I wanted to continue to do the same. As our family doctor, Ifeoma combines her modern medical experience, which started with her residency at Boston Children’s Hospital under the auspices of Harvard University, with a more holistic view. Over the years she has also become a dear friend.
“My grandmother lived on her ancestral land on an island in the delta of the river Niger, as well as staying from time to time in the city,” Ifeoma says. “She worked with herbs and natural clay from the earth. She was a highly respected leader in her community and a healer by prayer. In the society in which I grew up, all elderly people were respected for their wisdom and experience.”
When I ask Ifeoma how she supports women entering elderhood today, she says, “As I look back on my life, I see all the things that I have neglected in my earlier years. I find myself wanting to shake all the women to make them wake up and appreciate their womanhood right now. To invest in their spiritual life and not waste too much time and energy on things that are transient, that will be lost to them with age and the passing of time. To build connections with nature and with all that is truly eternal and unchanging.”
Wisdom weaving, as a way of consciously curating our way out of eldervoid, can start as simply as building friendships with elders and connections to multigenerational, Earth-centered ways of living. “My life is a gift,” Yeshi says. “That gift is always getting recycled in terms of what I can offer. That’s different at different times, different contexts, different stages in my life.” These times call for us to relearn how to cherish the gifts of our elders and ourselves—at every stage of life—and the ways we can enrich each others’ lives, our communities, and our Mother Earth. “Cherishing is like a mudra,” Yeshi says, “holding someone with open-hearted attention and giving them the time and space so they can have the freedom to be who they truly are.”