As I rapidly approach the age of 65, the “senior citizen” years, I was confronted by an enlightening discovery. In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr provides an illuminating distinction between someone who is elderly and an individual who is known as and respected as an elder.[1]

Rohr’s describes elders, individuals in the latter stages of life, as people who, “try to influence events, work for change, quietly persuade, change your own attitude, pray or forgive instead of taking things to court … When elders speak they need very few words to make their point. If you talk too much or too loud, you are usually not an elder.”[2]

Even more to the point, Rohr distinguishes true elders as, “no longer have to prove that I or my group is the best, that my ethnicity is superior, that my religion is the only one that God loves, or that my role and place in society deserve superior treatment …. My desire and effort – every day – is to pay back, to give back to the world a bit of what I have received.”[3] …To find their true self, your substantial self, your absolute identity, which can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula whatsoever.”[4]

Titus echoes this as he describes elders as those who live wisely, who are just, and encourage others by teaching. Titus also believes an elder, “is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a devout and disciplined and blameless life” (Titus in 1:5-9).

I have embarked on taking an honest appraisal on how I measure up to these descriptions. Am I just someone who is elderly or am I an elder? Do I exemplify the characteristics and attributes of an elder as described by Titus and Rohr? Do I live a life where my true self is exemplified daily? Or am I just an elderly person with no real purpose or direction relying on, “your role, title and personal image, your false self, to define you?”[5]

I would prefer to be seen and to be known as an elder. As an individual who has discovered my true self. One who has learned that the earlier stages of life including both successes and failures, have been the necessary preparation for a fulfilled and purpose-driven second half of life.

Both Titus’ and Richard Rohr’s definition of elders both emphasize that elders, through their speech and actions influence, teach and pay back to their communities. Acting as role models, guides, and supporters to others.

Both exhort elders to be mentors, individuals who intentionally influence, “children, teens, and midlife adults … for such elders are the “grand” parents of the world.”[6]

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson in Mentor for Life concurs with Titus and Rohr. She suggests that everyone, “needs people of wisdom who can speak God’s truths, while equipping and encouraging them to live their lives on purpose for him.”[7]  Robinson sees mentoring as a key responsibility. She also sees mentoring as extending beyond counselling or coaching. Her vision of mentoring includes guidance, support, and coaching but she believes it should not stop there. Intentional and purposeful mentors also provide constant personal attention to those whom she calls, “spiritual infants”, the lost, immature, and sick.[8]

Yet, not all elderly people are willing or able to take on this critical responsibility. Sadly, some divest themselves of this responsibility when they possess the attributes and characteristics necessary to be an elder.

Most tend to avoid this calling. To be fair some may not be aware that they have the capability, or they may have not heard the calling. These individuals need to be encouraged and equipped to fulfil this crucial role.

There are also some elderly people who frankly should not be given this responsibility, not because they are “bad people”, but their calling is elsewhere.

But roadblocks prevent this societal need being met. Reasons include the lack of confidence by the elderly believing that they have anything of substance or the right character to influence or lead, especially younger individuals. And perhaps an even greater roadblock is how younger individuals often discount and disqualify elders as they view them as being out of touch with the current reality of society and don’t get “them”.

There is a desperate need for elders to be mentors because, “mature societies were meant to be led by elders, seniors, saints, and “the initiated”. They alone are in a position to be true leaders in a society, or certainly in any spiritual organization. Without them, “the blind lead the blind.”[9]

[1] Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

[2] Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, 2011, 119-120.

[3] Ibid, 121.

[4] Ibid, 86.

[5] Ibid, 85.

[6] Ibid, 124.

[7] Natasha Sistrunk Robinson. Mentor for Life. Zondervan, 2016, 31.

[8] Ibid, 45.

[9] Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, 2011, 9.