What We Didn’t Know About Respecting Our Elders

By @AbbeyCompton, Nov. 28, 2018

Most of us were told as kids to respect our elders, but few of us got much guidance to help understand what that means or why it matters. Unsure of the rules, I muddled through with an extra dose of good manners (a lot of “yes, Ma’ams” and “no, Sirs”) on those rare occasions when I encountered an old person I didn’t know.
From what I could see, elder status was undesirable to adults. I don’t recall my parents or teachers ever referring to themselves as elders or lining up to get into the local rest homes. There were elders at church, but they were volunteers saddled with administrative jobs hardly anyone else cared to do.
So, when do we assume our place in elderhood, and what does respect for elders look like?
In October, I had the opportunity to meet people whose elder status is welcomed and celebrated.

Native Truth Be Told

At the 75th annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Denver, I sat in a circle of a dozen or so young people and two elders for a two-hour, technology-free storytelling and Q&A session. While American culture in general still harbors many antiquated, romanticized, and false notions about Native people and how they live today, almost everyone recognizes that Native people do much better at showing respect for elders.
This was evident as I took my seat in the circle of chairs in the hotel break-out room. The young people ranged in age from middle schoolers to recent college grads and represented Tribes from across the U.S. There was not a smartphone in sight as they took their seats and turned their attention to the elder gentleman already seated among us.
He wore a black Vietnam Veteran cap. As he spoke, he took us back to the time he grew up in 1960s Chicago; a time when Native people were encouraged by the federal government to urbanize and when young men who dared show signs of weakness would become easy prey for neighborhood bullies. He shared deeply about the impact of violence on his life and the complex tangle of emotions attached to his time in Vietnam.
A second elder, a woman in her 50s, joined the circle. She spoke of her years as a mother, raising children while working, and the importance of family connection and perseverance.
Midway through the session, one of the organizers brought water over to me and both the Native elders in the circle. I felt a bit like an interloper. I am not Native. I’m well past youth, and like the adults who raised me, I was resistant to being viewed as an elder (middle-aged? Sure…elder? Not just yet, please). Nevertheless, I was grateful to be so warmly received.
The questions from the young people flowed naturally during breaks in the elders’ stories. While the discussion veered political at times, they mostly wanted the elders to share their personal triumphs and failures and how they found courage when times got hard.

The Campfire Within

It had been a long time since I had seen so many young people (or any group that size) sit quietly without anyone reaching for a smartphone. It may have been established as a ground rule that phones be turned off and put away while the elders spoke, but I believe the attention of the young people came from a deeper place.
The connection to others we often seek in reaching for our devices was already in the circle. We are pre-wired to connect to each other through our stories. Our DNA makes us human, but our stories make us people, and we were people before any political, religious, or racial identity became the reason we started seeing the otherness in each other.
When the elders told their stories, they kept coming back to their own elders. The man who served in Vietnam talked about the pain it caused his mother to have both her sons at war and his regret about not seeking the Clan Mother’s advice before enlisting. The woman elder talked about navigating a federal bureaucracy so that her father, also a U.S. service member, would posthumously receive the medals he earned.
After the two-hour session, the group stood, stretched, and shook hands. The smartphones were turned on again, and the selfies and Instagram posts resumed. To me, the young people in the circle didn’t seem different from my son. They have their friends, their schools, their iPhones, and their dreams of the future.
The elders seemed very different. They had the respect of their communities. They knew they belong, and their people gave them the opportunity to be heard without agenda or fear of judgement.

The Prescription No One Gets

Too often our elders are made to feel they no longer fit in. They struggle to feel as though they still belong in their communities and even in their own families after their time as breadwinners and caregivers expires. We can do better for them and for ourselves if we take the time to understand the problem and look for creative solutions:
Loneliness isn’t just sad. It’s a threat. Even when older adults have lots of friends and social engagement, if they feel they don’t belong, their risk of developing dementia increases. Engaging older adults in senior activities won’t be enough. We need to help them feel valued and included in our communities.
Generational integration requires a time and place. As kids outgrow the need for a grandmotherly caregiver and move into middle school, they rarely have opportunity for meaningful engagement with older adults. We need to find ways to engage our elders with our middle and high schoolers without further stressing them or ourselves. The last thing our kids need is yet another item on the checklisted childhood.
There’s no quick fix. Caring for our elders and raising our children are both long-term propositions. If either generation isn’t thriving, let’s find ways to support them rather than mechanically working to fix them. With our support, those elders who are able to be the beloved storytellers in our communities will emerge to help begin the healing journey.

Listening is Respect

When I was younger, I got away with speaking respectfully to my elders. Now, I understand respect is more about listening than speaking, and it was always more for the benefit of the young than the old.