Seeking an Elder Culture
By Connie Goldman

Editor's note: Formerly on the staff of National Public Radio, Connie Goldman is an award-winning radio producer and reporter. For almost 30 years her public radio programs, books, and speaking have been exclusively concerned with the changes and challenges of aging. Grounded in the art of personal stories collected from hundreds of interviews, Connie's presentations are designed to inform, empower, and inspire. Her message on public radio, in print, and in person is clear — make any time of life an opportunity for new learning, exploring creative pursuits, self-discovery, spiritual deepening, and continued growth. Her books include The Ageless Spirit, Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer, The Gifts of Caregiving: Stories of Hardship, Hope and Healing, Late Life Love: Romance and New Relationships in Late Years, and Tending the Earth, Mending the Spirit: The Healing Gifts of Gardening.

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Old age, I’ve decided, is a gift. I am now, probably for the first time
in my life, the person I have always wanted to be.
 — Anonymous

Americans have an almost insatiable appetite for staying young, for remaining unwrinkled, thin, and youthful. Millions struggle in some way to resist, delay, deny, outwit, or camouflage the dreaded enemy — aging. Some resort to surgically altering their appearance to maintain the illusion tthat they’re younger than they actually are. Our culture, our advertising, marketing, fashions, and conversation cling to the ingrained myth that maintaining one’s youth is the prime value. Somehow that implies that a person who is older is of less value in a culture geared to productivity and consumerism. These have fed our endless efforts to retain the appearance of youth.

I know there are new words in our vocabulary created to soften our negative images of aging; successful aging, creative aging, active aging, and positive aging are only a few. These phrases are often used by healthcare plans or groups and organizations promoting healthy programs or exercise. They have used these terms wisely to encourage health and continuing mobility. Yet the media, advertising, and very often personal comments interpret successful aging as an anti-aging message: “Look like this model” or “buy this product” and hang onto your youthful appearance and lifestyle.

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"Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art."

— Eleanor Roosevelt


My mission for these many years has been to get people to appreciate that aging isn’t just about what we might lose as we age, but what we gain. For many years I’ve collected hundreds of interviews and recorded conversations with elders. I believe in the power of people’s thoughts and words that they give us deeper understanding of oneself, of deeper meaning and purpose in life. They speak of continuing growth, spiritual deepening, insights, awareness, and wisdom. Youth has been oversold, and aging has value that we as a culture haven’t acknowledged. I believe an elder culture can, and eventually will, exist. For some it already exits.

I recently met a woman in her late 80s who commented to me on her stage of life with this remark: “The journey in between who I once was and who I am now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place.” In another conversation, I asked a woman if she would  tell me the best thing about being 75. Without hesitating a moment she replied: “That age has given me what I’ve been searching for my entire life; it gave me, me!”

The late actor Ossie Davis shared his views on aging with me when he was in his 80s: “I would say that age is that point of elevation from which it is easier to see who you are, what it is you want to do, and from which you find yourself closer to the very center of the universe. Living through many changes, through many years, you get a sense of continuity. Age makes knowledge, tempers knowledge with experience, and out of that comes the possibility of wisdom.”

Several writers have stated this point of view in their own way. Here are the words of only a few:

“In the second half of life, our old compasses no longer work. The magnetic fields alter. The new compass that we need cannot be held in our hand, only in our hearts. We read it not with our mind alone, but with our soul. Now we yearn for wholeness.” (Mark Gerzon)

“The task of the midlife transition is to make peace with the past and prepare for the future… midlife brings with it an invitation to accept ourselves as we truly are.” (Paula Payne Hardin)

"One of the good things about getting older is that life becomes so precious on a day-to-day basis. I think I’ve always had a certain amount of daily joy, but now I find it even more so — the sight of a clear sky which doesn’t come all that often, or being out in the country, or now in the spring where the trees are just the greenest they’ve ever been, and even the colors that people wear. I feel my senses have become heightened. I know that some scientists think that our senses become dimmed with age, but I think it’s just the reverse!" (Eve Merriam)

"I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age that it is a time of discovery. If they say, 'Of what?', I can only answer, 'We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won’t be a discovery.' I want to say 'If at the end of your life you have only yourself, it is much. Look, and you will find.'" (Florida Scott Maxwell)

"All of us want to live a long time, but no one wants to grow old. With blinders on, we march through life pretending we’ll always be the way we are today…….our mission is to teach people how to age on purpose." (Seattle Times Columnist Liz Taylor)

To me, “aging on purpose” is part of the process of embracing the changes and challenges that come with growing older. By opening up to accepting who you are now — that you’re not who you were — we can become aware of new opportunities to thrive and grow in our later years. Age comes with the responsibility of planning, not only for one's health care and financial stability, but for activities that give both pleasure and purpose to life. That personal challenge that has been present in our younger years and remains our responsibility as we age. One woman told me, “I admit that my aging was unexpected but quite beautiful. I have grown to enjoy my hair and face as it is now. I have new hobbies, I take classes, I have new friends. I actually have found great joy in my aging.” Others I’ve spoken with validate that kind of positive acceptance of attitude and challenge.

76-year-old Ellen told me: I know one thing for sure — you’ve got to wake up in the morning with direction, some purpose that will shape your day, something to do. That meaning, that purpose, takes charge. It gives you the energy to get through the day. It’s very important that I say once more that I’m happier, more content, more pleased with my life than at any time in my many years. Aging is a wonderful, unexpected opportunity. I look at this time of my life as the very best time of my life.

64-year-old Irene shared this thought: When I am with my women friends we laugh a lot about our shortcomings that have to do with getting older, and we share a wonderful camaraderie. We care much less what impression we make on others; we have become more ourselves. We often talk of having learned to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t that important. That is an accomplishment, a wisdom that has come with older age, and I continue to grow.

82-year-old Betty said this: So in the first half of life I went out to discover who I was in this funny, silly, dark, frustrating world. Then came the unease of the middle years and then came the opportunity, noit’s more than thatto go inward. In order to respond to the call, to even hear it, I had to say no to so many seductive calls to be active and busy in the same way I was. I know that now is my time to simplify and listen to my still small voice within, the deepest part of myself. And that’s what I would tell others, because it’s available to all of us.  

The challenge of aging isn’t to stay young. We must not only  grow old, but grow whole and come into our own. The aging process is woven into human destiny. All must embrace the challenge to understand who they are, now that they’re not who they were. If we accept ourselves fully as each of us age, we will create an elder culture in which we think differently, not only about ourselves but about the world around us.

Hopefully, the struggle to retain youth will also diminish for both the media and the world of advertising. Hopefully, too, individuals will willingly and openly embrace their later years. Those changes will be the seeds to an elder culture that looks at bigger truths, acts in a more socially concerned manner, takes responsibility for the environment, and views all life as a gift. Maybe, just maybe, an elder culture could teach the young that war, killing, and cruelty can be replaced by a sincere regard for other humans. Ah, then the true value of a long life would become a reality!

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

— by James Wright