Updated: Apr 8, 2020
To grandparents and parents everywhere, with love and a deep honouring of your valued presence.
Update: Love in the time of Covid-19
In these troubled times I thought I would revisit this piece, as some of my reflections of 12 months ago seemed to be pertinent to these times and of course the context has changed in ways none of us could have imagined. However the role of Elder as I reflect on it here has never been more relevant. Nor have the observations about how we value human life - are we units of production or more than that?
The word grandparent means different things to different people. Becoming a grandparent is a very welcome family affair and there are many obvious and not so obvious, experiences and emotions that arise from it. This might include experiencing the joy, wonder and sheer relief at seeing our children emerge as competent, loving parents. Witnessing the speed and complexity of human development in our grandchildren’s early months and years can be an incredible experience.
Alongside this wonder, there are also the changes in family dynamics and the shift of power from the older generation to the new ones in charge, the breadwinners, the decision makers. This change in family circumstances and new roles within the family can be tricky to navigate. Most grandparents have tales to tell of opening their mouths when they should have been silent and vice versa. Grandparent wisdom is regarded as a mixed blessing!
I have begun to ask myself the question, ‘What is a grandparent?’3 Is it simply a family affair or are there roles within the wider community for those in this next stage of life? (I refer to my role within the family as grandparenting and my role in society as elderhood. This is, of course, a false distinction, but a convenient one). During my lifetime, the role for the older generation has changed. In our current culture, there seems to be a smaller space for the presence of elderhood, a more confined and defined role. Elders are no longer productive units and therefore not regarded as powerful or knowledgeable. Google has replaced the grandparent/elder wisdom, and the media portray elders as consumers of precious resources and responsible for leaving the world in a mess. And yet at the same time, the rising popularity of mindfulness indicates a hunger for wisdom, for the authority of teachings that can offer guidance, connection and a moral or ethical stance.(A collective noun for these attributes is Love)
These days, grandparents are no longer seen as productive units themselves, but useful for enabling productivity in the parents. For example, statistics reveal an army of unpaid carers in the UK who provide £3.9bn of childcare every year, but this contribution remains unacknowledged by the political and legal worlds.1. Our recent political and economic history has inclined us to accept that the productive unit is the most important thing and that once productivity – however that is defined – declines, then the inevitable fate is invisibility and death. No wonder we fear this and resist by working hard to deny the inevitable.
A society that values its children should cherish its parents. Bowlby5
There is little doubt that young families of today need more support than is available in our current political and economic system. However, in becoming the practical support for families (e.g. by providing childcare) are we buying into the same system – the hierarchy elevating the importance of productivity? If we truly embrace the function of elderhood, are our talents better used as reflectors, commentators, activists for a better system?
I am beginning to recognise the delusion of working hard to stay productive, or even visible. I am coming to recognise there is another way. Waking up from that dream, I find the political and social landscape is being revealed and there is something astir in me that feels a compulsion to take up my responsibilities as a citizen as a social, political and ecologically active person – to be visible, counted and determinedly unproductive.The qualities of wisdom, and long-sight do not sit comfortably with a culture of busyness and competence. The value of elders in our society has been denigrated, denied, and dismissed. Stephen Jenkinson2 argues that elderhood is a function and not an identity.
Dr Bill Thomas,3 defines adulthood as a time of busyness, of pre-occupation with productivity, and an adherence to hierarchy. He suggests that the role of adulthood in society, has expanded and has not only robbed children of their childhood, but also elders of their elderhood. The balance has become disturbed and the two ends of the life continuum have been devalued and disrupted. He has also suggested that this is a possible cause of the epidemic of depression – an inability to play, like children. Whilst, at the other end of the spectrum, taking ourselves too seriously, without allowing the perspective of elders who can stand apart from the hierarchy and ‘madness’ of adult busyness.
If we are to accept elderhood as a healthy developmental stage for both individuals and society, then it is a time to relinquish the function of adulting rather than trying to extend it. Just as the task of childhood is to be fully childlike, the task of eldering is to put aside adulting and embrace new functions. Speaking personally, this comes as a relief. In letting go of an individual drive to be productive, there are opportunities to see a wider perspective, to reflect more on functioning in and of the world, and to consider a path to greater influence. I claim more space for tenderness, love, patience and connection. As Bertrand Russel put it…
…making your interests gradually wider and more impersonal until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in this universal life.6
The gift that my children have given me is to point me towards this next exploration, to pause reflect and consider what are my best contributions now? The gift of becoming a grandparent has been the catalyst for me to take permission to put down the role of adult and embrace the next exciting developmental stage of elderhood. I am both grandparent and elder.
One of the first functions of mindful elderhood is to carve out a place for elders in our society, to make ourselves visible and to reclaim functional elderhood. The functioning of mindful elderhood is a deeply personal one, but there is no shortage of places and endeavours that need our resources and our energy.
Activism is the rent I pay for living on planet earth. Alice Walker7
Manifesto for Mindful Elders and Grandparents (Compiled with thanks to the wisdom of other elders. (See *8 and *2)
We don’t buy into the need to be productive in order to be valuable.
We take the long view and give willingly to initiatives that will come to fruition when we are dead.
We own our wisdom because we actually do know a lot.
We also acknowledge our lack of wisdom and knowledge with humour and grace – we don’t know everything.
We aim to act with courage and speak difficult truths.
We embody kindness, patience, love, tenderness and aim to offer this without discrimination or limits.
We model self-care and support one another.
The final word comes from Stephen Jenkinson in his book ‘Come of Age, The case for Elderhood in a Times of Trouble.’2
Elders need the courage to betray what would betray life. 2
2 Jenkinson S., 2018, Come of Age – The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble. North Atlantic Books. U.S.
4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijbgcX3vIWs - Dr. Bill Thomas.
5 Bowlby, J. (2008). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Basic Books.