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The Power of Wisdom of Old Age

5th January 2023

‘An elderly person living at home, (is like) a living golden treasure’.

(Chinese Proverb)

HOM: Listening with Understanding and Empathy/Remaining open to continuous learning

I grew up with an elderly person living at home, my paternal grandmother. And my maternal grandmother lived in the same house as my uncle and his family. Both were widowed and it seemed quite a normal thing for them to live with the extended family. That’s not to say it was always easy and I’m not sure that they were always considered as ‘living golden treasures’! Nevertheless, there was a mutual support between the generations from which I know they and I benefited. They were also important in upholding their knowledge of family history and our continuity with the past. We understood that their ‘wisdom’ was hard earned through experience and while not always agreeing with them, their views were to be understood rather than dismissed.

How times have changed in this country at least, as families live ever more apart so that mutual support is harder to maintain. Not only that but there has definitely been a cultural shift, with attitudes towards ageing becoming more negative. Becca Levy in her book ‘Breaking the Age Code’ compares beliefs about ageing in the US from that in China. ‘I found that in China, when I asked people to describe the first words or phrases that came to mind to describe an old person, the most common response was ‘wisdom’, whereas in the US, the first image to come to mind is usually ‘memory loss’’. And this difference in the perception of ageing resonates throughout our cultures and has actually been shown to be ‘self-fulfilling’. In the US and the Western Europe that means that negative expectations become self-fulfilling prophesies. And ageing is something to be avoided for as long as possible, or to be hidden away.

We also live in an age of what writer Louise Perry calls ‘chronological snobbery’. This is ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited’ (‘The case against the sexual revolution’). That means any ‘wisdom of the elders’ may be seen as simply past its sell-by date and no longer of value. Perhaps both ‘youngers’ and ‘elders’ could gain by listening with a little more ‘understanding and empathy’ and by ‘remaining   open to continuous learning’ to quote two of our habits of mind.

While China has become increasingly Western-influenced, many families still follow the Confucian tradition of respecting elders as the highest virtue. And our elders are a valuable resource. Two projects highlight this. Firstly the ‘Friendship Bench’ scheme set up in Zimbabwe, which uses ‘grandmothers’ who are rooted in their communities and custodians of local wisdom and knowledge, to sit on wooden park benches and offer safe non- judgemental listening ears, to those who need mental health support. And then working globally, there is a group known as The Elders, set up by Nelson Mandela in 2007. It brings together the Elders from across the nations to be independent moral voices for peace and ethical leadership. In the words of Nelson Mandela ‘the Elders will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair’. And such ‘elders’ are truly ‘golden treasure’s’ from whom we all might learn, and from whom we might gain hope as we move forward into 2023.

Happy New Year everyone!


Mrs Crossley