Starting your Journey – Eldering in Retirement

Key Concept

This Starting Point introduces the concept of Eldering and suggests that the value that Elders bring is essential to the well-being of society. Related to that is an examination of what it means to be an Elder


On completion of this module you will have identified your qualities as an Elder and you will have identified what will give meaning to a retirement that could extend for 25 years.

Retirement is a difficult time for many people – conventional wisdom has it that one’s useful life is over. Wikipedia defines retirement thus :-

  1. to withdraw or go away to a place of privacy, shelter, or seclusion.
  2. to go to bed.
  3. to give up or withdraw from an office, occupation, or career, usually because of age.
  4. to fall back or retreat, as from battle.
  5. to withdraw from view.
  6. to withdraw from circulation by taking up and paying, as bonds or bills.
  7. to withdraw (troops, ships, etc.), as from battle.
  8. to remove from an office or active service, as an army officer.
  9. to withdraw (a machine, ship, etc.) permanently from its normal service.
  10. to put out (a batter, side, etc.).

You might have been the CEO of a multinational, or a teacher who impacted the lives of thousands of children, an entrepreneur who created employment for hundreds of people or an employee who made a point of providing superior service to colleagues and customers – and now “retirement“ is telling you that you no longer have anything of value to add.

But we have a different role to play – one that has been missing in modern western society – that of Eldering.

In the world we have created, there is poverty, greed, corruption, starvation, slavery and every kind of human misery. There is climate change, pollution, resource depletion and waste. Family is under threat from absentee fathers, ill disciplined youth, drug abuse and violence.

So who do our modern-day Elders have to be to halt the madness and to turn things around? At one level, we need to sit at the side of the next generation of “movers and shakers” – we need to hold the question “Just because we are clever enough to do something, should we?”

Then at the micro level, if each one of us gave our fullest attention to our grandchildren, if each one of us listened to the needs of a single mother trying to bring up her children, if each one of us used our connections and influence to bring awareness to our politicians and business leaders, to hold them accountable for their actions, then we are modern Elders.

So the big question is “how do I Be that?” That is the conversation we need to be having – not about  retirement or getting old - but about Eldering!

Some definitions

  • Retirement : when you formally end your career and follow a different path. Some people continue working in a reduced capacity, or as a consultant – nice work if you can get it, but that isn’t retirement. Retirement is also not an age; 63 or 65 or 70 – it’s when you stop doing what you have been doing and start doing something else (even if that something else is “doing nothing”). However, for many of us Retirement is coming to mean "that time when we can no longer do what we have been doing because of frailty and decreased capacity to do things we used to be able to do."
  • Aging with Intention : So, no matter what our age when we retire, we can be sure that we will be aging. We can receive that aging unconsciously - allowing it to happen and dealing with the mental and physical issues as they arise. Or we can receive it consciously - aware that the actions we take and the choices we make will have a ripple effect into all areas of our life. Aging with Intention depicts later life as a time for the growth of our consciousness and wisdom.
  • Eldering : a term originally used by the Quakers to denote the religious training and education of young adults by their Elders. In a secular context – it is when you take on the role of a mentor or advisor; a senior, influential member of society based on your personal authority.

Eldering in the context of a Hero’s Journey

A powerful myth that is retold across the world is of the Hero’s Journey. We all live in the Ordinary World, until one day we start to feel the stirrings of a call to adventure. Most refuse the call and continue to live, more or less happy lives in the Ordinary World, doing the things that have to be done to keep the wheels turning.

Some, the ‘Heroes’, answer the call, but need a guide to direct them on their Quest. They meet an Elder, who imparts knowledge or gifts and mentors them in preparation for their Quest.


Shortly afterwards our ‘Hero’ crosses over into the Special World and the Elder disappears into the background. Sometimes the Elder re-appears in ghost-like form at moments of crisis, providing the Hero with a key piece of information, motivation or insight. The Elder has given his/her Gift and the focus of attention returns to the Hero in the fulfillment of their Quest. Which is as it should be!

But in the modern western world there is a crisis. The Elders have been hidden away in old-age homes and the Heroes have forgotten that without their knowledge and wisdom, their Quests can go seriously wrong – leading to greed, death and destruction.

So instead of following the Hero, we need to follow (at a respectful distance) the Elder. How did they come to play such a pivotal role, what value did they really bring and would the Hero have triumphed if the Elder had not been there?

 The Elder’s Journey

As we watch the Hero stride off to their destiny, let’s bring the Elder to centre stage. Who are these Elders? What we learn, is that in their youth, they too set out on a Quest and they too were met by an Elder who gave them gifts of knowledge. (We call them Mentors - but they were much more than that!)

But we also learn that Elders have a driving need to atone for past mistakes. In the ancient stories, it might have been mistakes that led to the sacking of the village, the arrival of evil spirits or the failure of the army in war. In the modern story they are the mistakes, the regrets and the lost opportunities committed in the pursuit of wealth, consumption and “a better life-style”.

At first the Hero rejects the Elder's gifts – after all they are a new generation and things have changed; they think the gifts are no longer relevant. It is only after the Elder has described and explained the mistakes that they themselves had made, and how many of those mistakes could cause the Hero’s Quest to fail, that the Hero starts to listen (every Quest allows for the Elder’s speech!). With the benefit of experience the Elder is able to prepare the Hero.


The beauty of a story is that we don't have to consider the mundane facts of life. The Elder appears, gives his/her gift and disappears. There is no mention of his arthritis, his enlarged prostate, her brush with breast cancer, her weak bladder, his forgetfulness. Real Elders suffer all these ailments (and more) and they are no less of an Elder for them.

In addition, what we also don't see is their preparation for Elderhood - turning off the TV at the start of yet another Soapie and picking up an interesting book instead. We don't see them walking in nature, learning the cycles of life. We don't remember that they were there when our heroes were little kids, pretending to be Heroes. They were there when our heroes were in High School. when they cheered and commiserated after Sports Day, when they attended yet another school concert, were so proud when the hero got a certificate for "Contribution in Class" or became a Prefect or captain of swimming.

Our heroes were getting ready to be Heroes and our elders were preparing to be Elders - they just didn't know it! Instead it was called "good parenting", being a great Uncle, being a wacky Aunt, an influential teacher, or just being someone who knows what it means to face life in the hard lane.

So it is no surprise that they appear at that critical moment in the Hero's story - they've been waiting for each other. So this Journey is about your preparation for Eldering.

The moral of this story?

The world needs Elder wisdom as much as Elders need to give back – a circle of life. The end of the Elder’s useful life is not when their career ended – it was after they had given their gifts. By hiding our elderly away in retirement homes we deprive them of the opportunity to become Elders and to “give back”.

4 Types of Elder

The Artisan

module-1-artisanThe people who get things done! They are the people who know how things work, they know how to cut through the "red tape", they are the teachers and the crafts-people. They take care, do things right and are meticulous with detail. In retirement it is likely that they will develop their hobbies and will be active members of their community and great grandparents.

Their gift is their skills and a “hands-on” understanding of how things work. Their value is in Mentoring and passing on their "how to" skills. Their role is to maintain standards of quality and service.

Their challenge is to open themselves to new ideas and to broaden their horizons.

The Architect

module-1-architectThe executive, the self-made man, or woman, the entrepreneur. Their lives are ruled by their need for success – wealth, power, influence and status. They are prepared to sacrifice all around them, friends and family, in pursuit of success. In retirement they look for meaning and continue to change the world.

Their gift is their vision and their drive. Their value is their ability to see the bigger picture and to make things happen. Their role is to sit at the right hand of tomorrow's movers and shakers and to hold the question "but should we - is that the best way?"

Their challenge is to come out of themselves and to become aware of those around them.

The Artist

module-1-artistThe innovator, the maverick, the experimenter. Their lives are ruled by their passions and they often crash and burn. Some rise like the Phoenix, many die young. In retirement they follow a deep spiritual quest to answer ‘who am I’

Their gift is their creativity and their courage to give things a try. Their value is to help people think outside the box and find unexpected solutions to problems. Their role is to help us find ways to adapt to a changing world.

Their challenge is to go within to find aspects of themselves missed in their creative years.

The Activist

module-1-activistThe protester, the crusader, the knight in shining armour. Their lives are ruled by their principles and they will stand by them against the odds. They can become disillusioned and need to stay connected to their principles to re-energise themselves.

Their gift is their moral courage and preparedness to “stand up and be counted”. Their value is to bring awareness of injustice and exploitation and to expose the “lie behind the promise”. Their role is to be the moral compass for their community and for society.

Their challenge is to pick their battles and to give their energy to what is important to them and not to be used to drive someone else’s agenda.

Each of us is a combination of all 4 types, but we are likely to have a dominant characteristic.

And in case you thought we are only talking about men!


Elders in modern society

In Aboriginal society the Elders hold the wisdom of the tribe, they are the mediators and its moral compass and they carry the power of 'blessing'. It isn't that they "do" things, they simply hold the energy of the tribe by who they are Being.

In today's world our “tribe” is fractured and dispersed, its wisdom is lost in the rush for material possessions and its Elders are languishing in Old Age Homes, forgotten and useless.

The Eldering Institute[2] began using the word "Eldering" to distinguish "wisdom in action"—with the focus on action. The phrase suggests that if we traffic in our experience and the knowledge we’ve accrued over the years without being in action or without having the capacity to inspire action in others, then all our "wisdom" is little more than a pile of comforting and mostly meaningless memories. When we stop the action, we become spectators and begin a process of detachment and inevitable decline. Eldering, in this sense, conveys the idea that life can continuously improve as we get older, provided that we continue to add value (be of service) and that we create and sustain authentic relationships with others of all ages.

The action of an Elder is Eldering and involves most of the elements of effective leadership, including:

  • Being responsible
  • Being humble and profoundly acknowledging of others
  • Being curious about and interested in others
  • Accepting people and circumstances as they are
  • Being whole and complete and helping others to be the same
  • Being committed to possibilities
  • Creating empowering and trusting relationships with others
  • Coaching others to accomplish more than they think is possible
  • Creating results and being wary of self-deception
  • Listening generously
  • Thinking rigorously
  • Enrolling others in the future
  • Having committed conversations

Being an Elder in the twenty-first century is being a human being who is recognized by a community as having some wisdom to offer that is of continuing value. As such, it is not limited by age, nor is it an entitlement.

We place high value on our technological wisdom, but very little value on our "life" wisdom - what makes for a successful marriage, how do we best raise our kids, what is the meaning of loyalty, dedication, respect, love and trust? That wisdom comes with age, with having walked the long dusty road, with falling down and getting up again.

The Elders also used to hold Ceremony. A young boy or girl's Rite of Passage into Adulthood, a woman's passage into Motherhood, a man's passage into Fatherhood, officiating at Funerals and Religious events. Most of these are lost for many people in our contemporary society - the rituals were developed as a way of processing and marking key life transitions. The need for these Ceremonies has not changed. What has changed is the need to find processes that are more accessible and relevant to our contemporary society. And we need to identify those Elders with relevant life experience to conduct those processes.

The Leadership in our Corporations, our Governments and our Religions is riddled with corruption, greed and incompetence. We need Elders with the moral authority to hold those leaders accountable. The Elders started by Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson is a fine start, but that same moral authority is needed in every community.

So who is an Elder?

Surely not just somebody who is old? Some criteria present themselves.

  • To have lived a varied life – to have experienced the demands of providing, protecting, organising and loving.
  • To have gone through a “midlife crisis” and to have emerged at the other side renewed and “wiser”.
  • To have made mistakes, big and small, to have taken responsibility for them, and to have forgiven one’s self.
  • To have experienced the death of their Ego and to be more at peace with them self.

How do you recognize an Elder?

  • They are able to build trust and respect and are able to invoke the higher nature of others. They are our ethical compass. In a world of rapid change and technological advance, ethics can be lost.

What is the value of an Elder?

  • Without ego they can look beyond the here and now. They have learned from history and through that, they are able to glimpse the future. (Sometimes our Elders are very young!)

Our father’s fathers created the Atomic bomb; where were their Elders the day the Enola Gay took off? Our modern technical wizards have created hedge funds, the World Wide Web, computers that work at the speed of light and yet, millions go to bed starving.

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful. Dr Samuel Johnson

Applying the wisdom of an Elder

  • Knowledge: the quality of information one gives to others
  • Wisdom: the quality of questioning that helps others discover their own knowledge.

To bring other men and women from a state of immaturity to one of maturity –

  • From“small picture” thinking … to “big picture” thinking
  • From a lack of self knowledge … to a sense of inner-knowing
  • From a focus on separation … to a focus on interconnectedness
  • From thinking “black and white” … to dealing with “shades of grey”
  • From an inability to create a team … to building trust and respect
  • From unawareness of the context in which decisions are made … to a focus on the big picture
  • From a narrow belief in right or wrong … to being able to deal with contradictions
  • From “my way or the highway” … to being flexible and able to adapt quickly
  • From doing it because we can … to considering the ethics of a situation
  • From “it’s all about me” … to “we are all interconnected”
  • From seeing the world as a resource to be consumed … to our role as custodians of our environment

An Elder can accept the paradox of “God helps those who help themselves” / “Let go and let God”.

Becoming an Elder

Becoming an Elder is a major life Transition. But let’s put it into context – click here to open an Introduction to Transition  - it will give you some insight into the transitions we all, to some degree, go through. Throughout our lives we have grown with change and now, retirement and old age is a period of rapid, and sometimes, traumatic change.

Elderhood is way of Being; of allowing oneself to experience the feelings and emotions that we normally cover up or hide from.

Whatever form they take, effective rites of passage into Elderhood will not prescribe a particular form or role for emerging Elders. The ways in which these Elders will share their wisdom and skills with the larger community will be as unique as each individual and as diverse as the population. What we new Elders will have in common, however, is a commitment to continual growth, deepening spiritual connection, passion, discovery of purpose and service. We will realize that our wholeness, our wisdom and gifts, and the well-being of the larger society and our planet itself, cannot be separated. Current and soon-to-be seniors can play a critical role in shaping a positive future if we choose to not withdraw as we age, but rather to nurture ourselves and our communities by claiming our roles as conscious Elders.

Ron Pevny: Centre for Conscious Eldering

The key to Eldering – kindness to oneself.

The table below offers some behaviours, some aspirational virtues from Pema Chodron’s brilliant book When things Fall Apart. If we can be kind to our self then we can extend that kindness to others.

More Less How
Generosity and compassion for self and others. Less desire / craving / wanting Meditation : un-distracted in the present moment
Kindness and respect for self and others Opinions of right or wrong Observe habitual patterns and behaviours
Patience with self and with others Blame or rejection Total dedication to awareness

Much as we may aspire to these behaviours, what happens when the going gets tough, is always instructive and we learn a lot about ourselves.

On Being an Elder

Go to the Worksheet On being an Elder to see how your characteristics as an Elder could be of value to others.

Discussion Assignment – Being an Elder

One can be an Elder at the international level of a Desmond Tutu or a Bill Clinton and one can also be an Elder at a community and even at a family level. It is not for everyone to gain wide recognition for their wise Eldering. But at some level we are all Elders to someone and can make a difference to that someone’s life.

Part 1 : What are my qualities as an Elder?

If you have not already done so go to the Worksheet On being an Elder and complete the questions. From what you have now written answer the question above - what are your qualities as an Elder?

Part 2 : Please give us a brief “bio” about you.

Although the participants in The Elder’s Journey may never meet and many would like to remain anonymous, it is much easier to “talk” to someone if you know a little about them.

So a 2nd task in this Assignment.  Write a brief Bio of yourself. As an example - this is mine.

My name is Alan

I am 70 years old, retired in 2015 – and now working as a Tourist Guide in Cape Town, South Africa. For the past 10 years I've been working with young Entrepreneurs to help them establish and grow their own business. I’m a” Baby-boomer”, born in Iran in 1947, grew up in Zambia, university in Cape Town, BSc in Industrial Psychology, married and 4 years working and hitch-hiking around Europe, back to South Africa for a “proper job” in Human Resource Management. 2 kids – daughter and son. Then mid-life crisis, pack in the job, started a Management Consultancy focused on Service Excellence. Not content with that, started an Outdoor Adventure company and a Publishing company.  Divorced and re-married, step-father and now a grand-father.

Discussion Forum

Next module : What Retirement holds for me

To start to get an understanding about how you see yourself in retirement and to consider some of the things that will change as your retirement kicks-in.

Next Module