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Jenn's main blog

Time to value the wisdom of elders

Jenn Shallvey

I was sitting in a cafe writing the other day. As I sat there immersed in my work, an older age brother and sister walked in with their elderly mother.  Their mother was assisted by a walker and the careful guiding and navigating of her ‘kids’.  It took quite a bit of shuffling around to get the seating just right.  The elderly mother was hard of hearing, as evidenced by the siblings’ loud, raised voices used when trying to communicate with her. The mother seemed out of it and not too fussed about what was going on.

Then the son took out a hearing aid, placed it in his mother’s ear, and a different woman emerged. It was almost like she came alive.  Despite her frailty and not so working order her smile beamed across the cafe. Her laughter caught the ear of everyone around her. As I looked at her I could see the sparkle of life fully brilliant in her eyes. Nothing was stopping her from being herself. She may be in a run down vehicle but what was going on inside certainly had some puff left.

I didn’t eavesdrop on the conversation, too much. However my curiosity did get the best of me. I just loved seeing the normality of life present in this moment.  Over a cup of coffee the three shared stories and day to day life.  There was nothing much other than that seeming important. No whinging; no complaining; no fussing. Simply being together and enjoying each others’ company.

Curious questions

So of course I started wondering.  What happens to those of us as we grow old?  What do we call old anymore?  A whole entire generation is ageing into retirement yet seem no where near living like they are retired.  Perhaps even the word retired is now obsolete.

When I see a person retired or no longer part of mainstream life I also wonder. Where does all this collective wisdom, knowledge and experience go?  What happens with the years and years of insight shaped by life and changing decades of cultural shifts?  

Maybe take it to a more personal level.  Do you know the stories of your parents? Do you know the stories of your grandparents?  What wisdom and stories are still passed down in your life?

As you can see a lot of questions come up for not just me but for all of us.

Culture of respect, or lack thereof
Then I started thinking of cultures where elders are revered and respected. Rather than left to twiddle their thumbs watching 24 hour news programs, elders are sought out for advice, mentoring and guidance.  A genuine respect and reverence exists knowing that such individuals have lived a long and experienced life.  The expression ‘been there, done that’ applies in full. So rather than speaking from second hand this generation wisely shares from their own experience.

Too close to home
Now this may not always be the case. I am well aware of the frailty and ailments of the later stages of life. I have had both my parents leave this earth after years of physical ailments.  There are many others affected by dementia or alzheimers.  You just have to go around a table of friends before you are sure to hear of a physical challenge faced by an elderly relative.  In fact I remember my mother remarking how as she aged the conversations with her friends became more and more about what was physically wrong and less about other information.

It is in this context that we are reminded more than ever to appreciate and learn what you can from people before you can’t.  We are surrounded by a generation of wisdom.  We may not agree with political views or values across generation yet we can certainly acknowledge the learning.  

Are you like many of us who in our youth dismissed much of what our parents shared.  I am one. In hindsight I now see that their wisdom came a lot earlier. Only my wisdom in hearing and learning from them came later.  As a parent myself, I attempt to pass on wisdom.  My wisdom is not valued by my children in much the same way I did not value my own parents.  I do not presuppose that I have all the answers. Not at all. I also believe quite strongly in the untainted, unfiltered, originality and directness so present in the perspective of youth. 

Reflecting back
Ultimately I believe the true wisdom lies within. When we are in conversation with another they are help us by reflecting back what we most need to hear. A person of more elderly status and experience in life has a greater chance of ‘knowing’ the right perspective to share that will help me see what I need to see.  

So it is in this context that I value the stories and sharing of people senior to me. I see them as a litmus test, a barometer, a wise source of knowledge that helps guide and shape the direction of my own insight.

Wisdom is closer at hand than we realise. We just need to tap into it.