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The Rite of Passage
The Rite of Passage

Becoming an Elder

Pamela McDonald, LCSW-C, Healing Circles Wellness Center

Let's start with a little exercise: Jot down the first words that come to your mind when you think about aging. How did you respond? Did some of your responses surprise you? For many people, the thought of growing old stirs up fears of being incapacitated physically or mentally and, most profoundly, the fear of dying. Then, there are those who recognize the privilege of aging and the opportunity for inner exploration into this great mystery of being alive.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average human lifespan in the U.S. increased by more than 30 years in the 20th century. Americans are living longer and in better health into their elder years. As the baby boomer generation moves through their 60s, their sheer numbers are causing society's beliefs about aging to be transformed. Leading-edge aging experts are calling the years after retirement the "third age." This is a 20 to 40 year span that offers individuals opportunities such as developing another career, volunteering, creative outlets, furthering education, or deepening a spiritual practice. This perspective on aging encourages and acknowledges the potential for human development throughout the life span.

In the third age, we transition from our active roles of external achievement to harvesting our life lessons and creating a legacy to pass on to younger generations. We start to look inward to the deeper meaning of our lives and our humanity. We will grieve some losses along the way. There is a rite of passage in becoming an elder, according to Reb Zalman, founder of the Spiritual Eldering Institute and author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing. Zalman embarked on his spiritual journey to transition to an elder when he confronted his fears and depression about turning 60. He confronted his conflicted feelings and society's stereotypes about aging and questioned what remained incomplete in his life. Forming a meaningful context for aging consciously, he joins a cadre of elders infusing society with their wisdom and gifts.

Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., has helped educate society about the creative potential of the aging brain in his books, The Creative Age and The Mature Mind. Dr. Cohen built on existing research findings on the brain's neuroplasticity throughout the life span. He found our brains remain flexible and adaptable into our later years, with the capacity for making new neuron connections as we learn new pursuits. In addition, his research has shown that elders use their left and right brains in a more integrated manner than younger generations - the result being wisdom. As we age, we develop more adaptive coping mechanisms, appreciation for the little things in life, and a greater capacity for gratitude, forgiveness, humor, and empathy.

So, how do we develop the positive aspects of aging in our own lives? The qualities of aging consciously reflect accessing our inner wisdom - developing our spiritual selves. A daily meditation or other contemplative practice helps us to become aware of the space in which our thoughts, feelings, and body senses arise. We learn to watch our thoughts as they rise and fall - including our judgments. We become more aware of all the sensations and we begin to identify with the timeless, ageless source of our self and recognize this stillness, if even for an instant, as something...

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