For most of human history, life’s third age, elderhood, provided a noble station within which a person could experience old age. It has been protected, sustained, and nurtured because it is able to bind families, communities, tribes, and nations together.
Today, our youth-centric culture views aging primarily through the lens of decline and older adults are seen as liabilities, not assets. In fact, we need elders precisely because they are extraordinarily useful. We need elderhood because it drives the wheel of intergenerational cultural transmission:
This graph offers a representation of how this wheel works. This ancient and ongoing cycle of intergenerational assistance remains humanity’s greatest invention; it has shaped us, served us, blunted our worst tendencies and magnified our best. Given the terrible might of modern industrial society, it would seem that, more than ever, we need what it has to offer. It is this capacity for transmitting culture across generations that makes aging essential.
What we need is a radical reinterpretation of longevity that makes elders (and their needs) central to our collective pursuit of happiness and well-being. We have no word that describes the value of intergenerational interdependence, of living in a multigenerational society, of protective social structures and rituals. Because such a word would be useful, I coined the term “Eldertopia.”
Eldertopia / ell-der-TOE-pee-uh / noun: A community that improves the quality of life for people of all ages by strengthening and improving the means by which (1) the community protects, sustains, and nurtures its elders, and (2) the elders contribute to the well-being and foresight of the community. An Eldertopia that is blessed with a large number of older people is acknowledged to be “elder-rich” and uses this wealth to advance the good of all.
Adapted with permission from the writings of Dr. Bill Thomas.
Dr. Bill Thomas is a world-renowned authority on geriatric medicine and eldercare. He is founder of two movements to reshape long-term care globally – The Eden Alternative and Green House Project.