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Elders, not elderly: Inspiring Native American approach to respecting our ancestors

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 05/01/23

How would it change us if young people celebrated elders' wisdom and listened attentively to their stories?

Pope Francis speaks frequently about the need to value and appreciate elderly people. 

“Where there is no honor for the elderly, there is no future for the young,” he has boldly declared. 

He has spoken out against the “throw-away culture” that would have young people ignore or discount elderly people because they are no longer “useful” in the ways they once were.

I thought of his words recently when I attended a lecture at my local library about American Indian history in my region. I love going to these kinds of local history events whenever I can. Knowing about the daily lives of those who were here before me helps me understand what it means to live deeply rooted in this particular place on earth. 

The speaker, a Native American man, shared some moving stories about his culture and tribal history. 

One thing he said really stuck with me. He commented that he hopes “Western” cultures can learn some lessons from the Indigenous ways of being, especially in their treatment of the elderly.

“In our culture, they are called elders, not elderly,” he said.

Wow, what a difference that small linguistic shift makes! The word “elder” conjures images of veneration, respect, and deep wisdom. 

You can just picture yourself going to “ask advice from the elders,” or “seek the opinion of the elders,” in a way that “elderly” just doesn’t quite capture.

After his lecture, I did a little research on my own and found this incredibly beautiful description of the Native American approach to elders in their communities:

Elders are the heartbeat of their Tribes. Their age and wisdom allow them to perceive clearly from a cultural perspective and understand deep truths about God and nature. It is of utmost importance that Elders be treated with respect and reverence. Oftentimes in Native communities one will see the younger generation getting Elders their food at community gatherings, or acquiring comfortable seats for them…

When an Elder speaks, an informed individual knows to listen. An Elder’s wisdom is invaluable to a tribe’s prosperity and well-being. Elders are sacred bearers of golden truths and know many valuable stories about the Old Ways. God often speaks through Elders.

Isn’t that just wonderful to read about? It got me thinking that we could all learn something from the Indigenous approach here.

What would it look like if young people took this kind of perspective with the elders in our own communities and families? How would it change us if we celebrated their wisdom and listened attentively to their stories?  

What if we re-framed our thinking to honor, learn from, and revere our elders instead of brushing off their stories as irrelevant?

I believe learning from our elders would be a huge blessing. 

In my experience, spending time building relationships with elderly family members is a really wonderful thing for all involved. 

And I have a feeling Pope Francis would applaud, too!

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ElderlyFamilyPope Francis
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