Is there such a thing as “elder wisdom”? Do older adults inevitably acquire a special kind of inner knowledge unavailable in their middle-age years, or is this concept a mere stereotype and illusion?
Culturally, we tend to romanticize the notion that everyone gets smarter with age and that for this reason, age alone demands our respect. But this assumption has its pitfalls.
“I dislike the term ‘elder wisdom’ as it seems to have gone the way of cliché or token prize with a hefty dose of condescension,” says geriatrician and University of California San Francisco professor of medicine Dr. Louise Aronson, author of A History of the Present Illness. “Wisdom means using experience, knowledge and judgment well, so there is likely something real to older adults having wisdom since they have more experience, although more of something doesn’t guarantee quality, so this seems a generalization that will often fail, as most do, since one can have experience and learn little.”
Tim Carpenter, CEO and founder of EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that “creates community and changes lives by transforming affordable senior and multigenerational housing projects into vibrant centers of learning, wellness, and creativity,” shares Aronson’s views. He believes that “people accumulate knowledge and experience throughout their lifespan and we all, as we age, better prioritize the things we need to know and know how to apply them in our daily lives. I think wisdom is something we all aspire to and there is a better chance of achieving it the longer we strive toward it. That said, simply becoming older doesn’t make us wise. Becoming older doesn’t make us anything –– kinder, more giving, better people. These are things we have to work for at any age, things we must earn.”
The Traits of Elder Wisdom
“Wisdom is not an inevitable product of aging,” says geriatric neuropsychiatrist and past president of the American Psychiatric Association Dilip Jeste. Furthermore, wisdom is more than mere knowledge passively derived from experience. It’s an ability that requires conscious and careful cultivation. “Wise people are intelligent,” he says, “but not all intelligent people are wise.”
In an enlightening TEDMed talk, Jeste asserts that throughout history as well as cross-culturally, wisdom is defined by the following traits:
- Social decision making –– reasoning and acting in ways that consider the effects on other people;
- Emotional stability –– appropriately being able to control one’s own emotions;
- Pro-social behaviors (compassion, altruism, etc.) –– not being selfish but rather helping others;
- Insight –– knowing one’s own strengths and limitations; and
- Decisiveness amid uncertainty –– being open to other perspectives and suggestions and yet being able to act when necessary.
Of course, these abilities can be found in any adult at any age, but Jeste says that older adults tend to exhibit more of these traits more often. Aronson agrees: “There is evidence for greater emotional intelligence with age, for many older adults being more sanguine about life, finding it easier to prioritize and take the wider view of things, putting them into perspective.”
According to Jeste, human brains change throughout the lifespan, and elders engage more of their prefrontal cortex (the planning, organizing, and judging area of the brain), than do younger people. In addition, the two amygdalae of the brain, sub-organs that regulate a person’s emotions, are often calmer and less skewed toward negative feelings in older adults, which explains why people usually feel happier as they get older.
The Purpose of Elder Wisdom
Jeste believes there’s a special evolutionary purpose to elder wisdom, one that explains why people live decades past their ability to reproduce and past their maximum level of physical strength. Citing what is known as the “grandmother hypothesis,” he explains that children who are reared with the help of infertile grandparents are more fertile when they become adults, and this helps to ensure a population’s survival.
Exactly what kind of help do grandparents and other elders provide? Whether or not they are involved in actual child-care duties, older adults contribute to the intellectual and moral growth of younger members of society.
In his ground-breaking book From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi explains their significant contributions. “What do elders have to teach?” he asks. “Over and beyond an exchange of verbal information and technical skills, they transmit what can’t be acquired from books. When the transfer of sheer data just isn’t sufficient, they impart the wisdom of a lifetime (including the personal attitudes, moral and ethical judgments, and aesthetic appreciations that characterized them) through the fire of a unique relationship, the give-and-take of a living dialogue with a younger student or apprentice. When an elder fertilizes a young person’s aspiring mind with his knowledge and seasoned judgment, the student receives a living spark, a transmission, that may one day blossom into wisdom.”
Inevitable vs. Potential Wisdom
When asking the question “Does ‘elder wisdom’ exist?”, it’s important to distinguish between what is (or isn’t) an inevitable fact and what is empirically a potential ability. The difference is a matter of the older adult actively committing to become wise. Says Carpenter: “I have worked with older people for decades, and I often tell them that they shouldn’t expect special treatment because they are older. We shouldn’t expect respect, we should live our lives in a way that earns the respect of others. If you’re looking for a handout because you’re older, you’ve already given away your power. The best examples of elder wisdom for me have always been in people who have tried hard to learn, to grow, to be open to ideas, to listen, to live life like it’s the only one they have.”
“We’re not always elders; sometimes we’re aging, crotchety, somewhat elderly people,” writes Schachter-Shalomi. “But at any moment in the battle between the forces of aging and eldering, we can become conscious, snap out of the hypnotic trance induced by society and our own inertia, and do the inner work of eldering.”
Perhaps the truest statement on elder wisdom is best expressed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem “Morituri Salutamus”:
“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”
The key word is “opportunity.” Older adults have the potential to acquire elder wisdom if and only if they take advantage of both the opportunity and the desire to reflect on their own life, make sense of it, and apply their insight toward positive engagement with the world.
After all, those invisible stars will remain hidden unless and until elders choose to embrace the evening of their lives and let them shine.