Why We Need To Gather The Wisdom of Elders
BY KEN DYCHTWALD
About fifteen years ago, my research and consulting firm, Age Wave, conducted a large-scale study on the subject of inheritance. We quickly discovered that participants in the focus groups didn’t want to talk about inheritance at all; they said it conjured up morbid images of death and the unpleasant tasks of dividing up money and property, subjects they didn’t want to think about, let alone talk about. I suggested that the focus group moderator substitute the word “legacy” for “inheritance.” The moderator asked participants if anyone wanted to either give or receive a legacy, and the floodgates opened. Everyone wanted to share their thoughts and feelings on the importance of receiving and leaving a legacy.
Our research on the topic then revealed that as far back as a thousand years ago, some religious traditions believed that as people reach their older years, they should create two wills: a “material will,” in which you express your wishes regarding the distribution of your material possessions and money to family and community, and an “ethical will,” in which you gather the key values and life lessons you want to share with your children, grandchildren and future generations.
This idea of an ethical will—or legacy—held great importance then, as it should today. While there’s surely value to elders in sharing experiences, knowledge, and wisdom, there’s also massive value in young generations learning from those who came before them.
While my firm was conducting this research, I became fascinated by the idea of leaving my own legacy. My dad passed away, and then my mom not long after, I celebrated my 65th birthday, and could see my 70th up ahead. So, I began to write my version of an ethical will. Over five years, with the help of a therapist and a storytelling coach, I attempted to gather the most potent lessons from my own life. In the spring of 2021, I published these stories in my memoir, “Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life.”
As the book neared its publication date, I began getting calls from reporters and colleagues in the fields of aging and longevity. They wanted to learn more about my memoir but were also intrigued to learn about my experiences with the extraordinary leaders and thinkers I encountered over nearly five decades in the field.
THERE’S MASSIVE VALUE IN YOUNG GENERATIONS LEARNING FROM THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE THEM.
It struck me that the concept of an ethical will applies not just to individuals, but to organizations, companies and professions as well. Some of the legendary giants of gerontology such as Bob Butler, Maggie Kuhn and Bernice Neugarten have passed away, and many remarkable pathfinders—women and men who have been working for three, four, five decades in this field—are growing older and retiring. As the world faces its greatest aging- and longevity-related challenges and opportunities, I was motivated by how important it was to preserve these folks’ life lessons so current and future students and professionals could be guided by them.
“To my delight, all of them responded immediately with an enthusiastic “yes!”
I emailed 12 of these legendary pioneers, hoping to get four or five responses. I explained the topics I intended to cover: the individual, social, and systemic dimensions of equity/inequity; how to avert a new era of mass elder poverty; what works and what doesn’t in today’s healthcare system for the chronic health challenges of older adults and their caregiving families; ageism in the media and popular culture; and the purposeful opportunities and obligations of today’s and tomorrow’s elders. To my delight, all of them responded immediately with an enthusiastic “yes!”
After providing funding and in partnership with ASA and 37 co-sponsoring organizations, during the late summer of 2021, I hosted and filmed (via Zoom) a series of 12 “Legacy Interviews” with a diverse set of leading pathfinders.
At this stage in their lives and careers, they all seemed to feel something along the lines of, “I want to be honest and transparent about what I’ve learned and leave my legacy for those who will touch the lives of older adults for generations to come. I’m not worried about losing my job or having my dean complain.” They were each grateful for the opportunity to share, and the respect they were being shown for their body of work.
The legendary pioneers I interviewed included:
Larry Curley, MPA, Executive Director of the National Indian Council on Aging and the former Division of Health Director of the Navajo Nation. “My dad and my parents taught us that when you get an education, you use that education to help people. It’s not a personal property; it’s a community property.” … “One time I sat down and thought about all of the elder mentors that I have learned from. I added up all of their years and counted 2,000 years of experience and wisdom that I’ve gained from these people. I now have those 2,000 years of their knowledge and wisdom in my head that I need to share with our younger people.”
Linda Fried, MD, MPH, world-renowned geriatrician and epidemiologist, the first female Dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and former President of the Association of American Physicians. “I was seeing patient after patient, older adults who came because they felt sick. Time after time what I found in taking a history from them was that the reason they were sick was they had no reason to get up in the morning. And that startled me. These were immensely able and talented people who wanted to live with meaning and purpose and the opportunity to enact a very age relevant goal, which is to feel like you’ve given back—and to know that you’ve left a legacy that will endure beyond you. And these people were sick because they hadn’t found a way to do that.”
‘WE STARTED THE 20TH CENTURY AS ONE OF THE MOST AGE-INTEGRATED SOCIETIES IN THE WORLD AND ENDED IT IN A STATE OF AGE APARTHEID.’
Marc Freedman, MBA, CEO, and President of Encore.org, acclaimed author and serial social entrepreneur, co-founder of Experience Corps and creator of the Purpose Prize. “In the 19th century, we lived in an agrarian economy and people of all ages worked together on farms and lived together in multigenerational households. But beginning with the industrial revolution in the early part of the last century, young people went to places for young people, middle-aged people went to the workplace, and far too many older people went to older people–only settings. The ultimate results are the grievous intergenerational wounds that we see today. We started the 20th century as one of the most age-integrated societies in the world and ended it in a state of age apartheid, one of the most age-segregated. And this has resulted in generational conflicts, ageism and epidemics of loneliness.”
Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN, President of The John A. Hartford Foundation, former Dean of Health Sciences at Northeastern University, and founding Dean of the New York University College of Nursing. “When I began my work as a geriatric nurse many years ago, I was shocked to hear the word GOMER being used to describe older patients. I thought it was insulting on every level. GOMER means “get out of my emergency room” and it has to do with disdain and disinterest in the care of older adults who may be suffering from dementia or chronic diseases that bring them in regularly because we failed to take care of them in a better way when they’re not in the emergency room. We must stop labeling people by virtue of the date of their birth and by the color of their hair and the lines in their face. What drives me every day is the older person in front of me. It’s so easy to feel that responsibility and compassion when you see someone who is not getting the care they need. As healthcare professionals, we should focus less on what’s the matter with you and more on what matters to you.”
Imani Woody, PhD, MS, President/CEO of Mary’s House for Older Adults, Program Officer for the 50+ Ministry of Metropolitan Community Churches, and longtime leading advocate of women, people of color, and LGBT/SGL issues. Woody shared that what has driven her in life and work is battling injustice. She also reflected on the discrimination she has endured, including racism, homophobia and how the erasure of ageism has been among the most difficult. When asked how, one day, she’d like to be remembered, she responded, “That I was a good person. That I fought for the underdog my entire life. That I made some real policy changes that changed the world.”
Kathy Greenlee, JD, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging and Senior Health Policy Advisor serving under President Barack Obama, and former Vice President for Health and Aging at the Center for Practical Bioethics. Greenlee reflected on the idea that ageism is when we stop expecting things of older people: “ ‘You’re done now, you can go away.’ That lack of expectation is itself revealing about the value we think older people can contribute. And I think we also have to start naming ageism when it goes both ways. Many older people take a very dismissive attitude toward Millennials and their phones. I hear them say, ‘They will never live a life not so completely juiced up and connected by technology.’ However, these young people have burdens that come from the phones they’re glued to, and they also have valuable perspectives about what the world needs to look like. And I think at some point the tables turn. We need to learn to follow—and not always try to lead.”
Click here to watch all of the one-hour interviews. Read the Generations Now post featuring the second half of Dychtwald’s Legacy interviews next week.
Ken Dychtwald, PhD, is founder and CEO of Age Wave, a think tank and consultancy focused on the social and business implications and opportunities of global aging and rising longevity. He is a psychologist, gerontologist and best-selling author of 18 books on aging-related issues, including “Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging Society;” “What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age” (Ken is donating all of his author’s fees to ASA) and his latest, “Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life.” Dychtwald was the executive producer and host of the highly rated/acclaimed PBS documentary “The Boomer Century: 1946–2046,” which aired more than 2,000 times on PBS stations nationwide, and his new Public Television special is called “Life’s Third Age.”
Read more from Dr. Dychtwald in GRAND here Retirees Greatest Health Concern Isn’t Covid