Old Ain't Dead: On Valuing and Encouraging the Contributions of Older People

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Here at Interfaithfulness, especially through our HaB’er initiative, we are involved in mentoring Jewish and Intermarried families in Jewish life, Yeshua faith, and relationship with God. And families include people of all ages!

But if you think that people beyond a certain age have outlived their usefulness, then don’t waste your time reading this because, after all, while you are reading, you are growing older and will sooner or later be useless, with your major contribution being to just stay out of the way.

But if you disagree, and if you think that older folks have much to contribute to the world as a product of their life experience and persepctive, then read on.

Recently I have been reading a wonderful book, Composing a Further 36449e97feb7a326373584541674331414f6744Life: The Age of Active Wisdom,  by Mary Catherine Bateson, now in her seventies,  the Clarence J. Robinson Professor Emerita of Anthropology and English at George Mason University. But that’s not the half of it: she is the daughter of Margaret Mead (yes, that Margaret Mead), and Gregory Bateson, two geniuses, and Mary Catherine’s intellectual apple doesn’t fall far from their tree, except to say that she has a highly developed faith life. And man, can she write!  What a mind. A little bonus, her mother’s sister was married to Leo Rosten, Jewish wit, author, Yiddishist and raconteur, so he was her uncle Leo!  And early in her book she speaks of going to Israel as a young woman and learning Hebrew there. And yes, she also speaks Arabic. What a confluence of influences!

If that’s not enough, she was also a teaching assistant to seminal psychologist Erik Erikson who postulated eight eras of human development. She explores these eight stages in her book, to which she adds a ninth, which she terms “Adulthood II,” an addition necessitated by how medical science and better living conditions have prolonged our years of productive living.

The chart that follow outlines these nine life-stages. For each, there is an issue, a crisis, to be resolve, and for each there is a positive outcome that is desirable, and a negative outcome that results from not having come through the age-related issue successfully. When that happens, if we are aware, we can spend time later in life making up for the deficit. And generally it is a good idea to do so





1.     Infancy

Trust vs. Basic Mistrust



2.     Early Childhood

Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt



3.     Play Age

Initiative vs. Guilt



4.     School Age

Industry vs. Inferiority



5.     Adolescence

Identity vs. Role Confusion



6.     Young Adulthood

Intimacy vs. Isolation



7.     Adulthood I

Generativity vs. Stagnation



8.     Adulthood II

Engagement vs. Withdrawal

Active Wisdom


9.     Old Age

Integrity (a sense of wholeness) vs. Despair

Receptive Wisdom, Humility


Having perused this chart, which comes from Dr. Bateson’s book, page 79, consider the following issues and questions. If you are “of a certain age,” may these points and questions clarify you own issues, and if you are someone who lives with older people, perhaps in your family or congregation, may these issues and questions transform what you expect of them and the support you give them.

Some Points to Ponder

  1. In some avenues of our culture and in some of our institutions, we tend to think of older people as those who have served their purpose and outgrown their usefulness. They are considered to be in a post-productive stage.
  2. In our day, advances in lifestyles and medical care have extended our lifespans so that there is a need to insert another era into the standard map of people’s lives, which Bateson calls “Adulthood II.” This is a time for reflection, for assessment of the lessons and experiences of life, a time of adjusting and of committing to a role which brings that wisdom and experience to bear on those tasks which the person now views to be most imperative. In fact, it may be a time of greatest impact. Neither those older people, whom we will call elder-sages, nor the contexts with which they interact, can afford to discard or ignore the resources they might bring to the table. As Bateson expresses it, “Part of the challenge then in growing older is to discover the ways arising from a life time of experience and in psite of reduced strength and stamina in which it continues to be possible to contribute” (18).
  3. In the chart above, the tasks accomplished in each stage are meant to bear fruit in the successive stages, and in each successive stage, one does clean up work on the prior stages, consolidating gains and taking care of unfinished business.
  4. Adulthood II is meant to be the most fruitful time of assessing those gains and losses, and of taking care of unfinished business. In speaking of spiritual leaders, Dr Robert Clinton describes this period of Adulthood II as Convergence. “There is a sense of destiny being There is a maximum effort toward achieving one’s ultimate contribution. Quite often though, many leaders do not actually experience convergence (or Adulthood II). There are various reasons for this. Sometimes they are hindered by their own lack of personal development. At other times a organization may hinder a leader from realizing convergence by keeping him or her in a position that limits potential. Some reasons are providential, and may be hard to understand because we do not have the full picture. Convergence, or Aduthood II, when realized, is maximized potential.Such persons may be and usually are semi-retired or retired from former roles, but they still have a capacity for fruitful influence. What follows in Old Age, post- Convergence, when lives are well-lived, is Afterglow or Celebration. The fruit of a well-managed life, or at least a well-managed Adulthood II, a time when others gather around such a person in affirmation and appreciation for the difference they have made. Should we not all aspire to this?

Questions For Older Folks to Consider and Younger Folks to Be Aware Of

  1. As you look over the stages of your life, what unfinished business do you want to address? In other words, in what ways do you think you were arrested in your development? What are you going to do now to balance things out?
  2. In what ways do you see yourself as marginalized in any of your various contexts? Did you contribute to your own marginalization? If so, what can you do to correct that?
  3. Have you chosen to not involve yourself and is this something you think God approves?
  4. Do you agree or disagree with this statement: “It is O.K. for some of us to just sit on the sidelines and let other people do the doing.”
  5. Are you at a stage of your life where you are changing roles or directions in some way because you have some contribution you feel you must make or task or adventure you must honor?
  6. What are some ways others see you that you want to correct because they are not the real you?
  7. How might we encourage and assist each other in making our best contribution and in moving toward wholeness in the later stages of life?
  8. How ought younger leaders and laity in our congregations improve how they engage with and utilize the contributions of older people?
  9. How ought older people to best engage with those younger than themselves so that the contributions of each are best encouraged and utilized?
  10. How do our congregations suffer when one or the other generation dominates the agenda?



Illustration at the top of this article ©Jeremy Brooks, Creative Commons License, used by permission. 


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