'Respect your elders' is a lot more than a banal platitude

 'Respect your elders' is a lot more than a banal platitude
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From a young age, I knew I had a future in eldercare. I remember spending time with my grandmother in her nursing home after school and on weekends, taking in the complex and exciting sensations of her world. Her spirited involvement in craft fairs, bingo, and other activities inspired in me a passion for senior recreation.

Mine was a literal inspiration which set in motion a long career in eldercare that I’m proud of to this day. But I often think of the other ways in which our elders inspire us. It’s my opinion that learning from them while we have the chance can change our lives for the better.

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“Respect your elders” is an adage older than the individuals it urges us to revere. But for ours to be a healthy and functioning society, we need to do more than just respect our elders. In life, business, and beyond, we need to listen to them, be inspired by their experiences, learn from their mistakes, and lift them up as they did for us.

The parameters (and limits) of respect

Respect of elders is usually invoked to accuse younger generations of disrespect, or shaming them into conforming to standards of the past. But that’s not what it is really about. Yes, youth comes with inherent naivety — and with age, wisdom — they always have. But using “respect” as a command in this fashion seems to prescribe a negative connotation to the idea. It turns it into a scolding when it should be so much more.

Respect, after all, is defined as “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” This feeling applies to our relationship to those who came before us, and rightfully so. The lives we enjoy come as a result of those who fought for our rights, and more specifically, gave birth to and raised us. That’s deeply admirable, and even where one may disagree with their elders, worth paying due regard.

But admiration and respect exist solely as feelings, and feelings aren’t enough to turn our relationships with our elders into productive, active ones that make sense in our modern day.

So yes, respect your elders, but do more than just that. For example…

Celebrate your elders

Older people have overcome obstacles that many of us will never face. Their achievements and longevity are well-worth celebrating, and not just at birthdays and funerals.

There are cultures which incorporate this philosophy into their traditions and daily lives. In Greece all older people are addressed with honorifics, a celebration that Arianna Huffington described in her book "Becoming Fearless": “The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God,” she wrote, “is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America.”

It’s true that Western culture, aging — especially visible aging — is viewed as a shameful process, or at least implied as such by the pervasive worship and pursuit of youthfulness. Youth has its perks, certainly, but aging is inevitable. Why not celebrate this life stage instead of stigmatize it?

Learn from your elders

Though trends toward vintage clothing and silver hair might imply otherwise, respect and mimicry aren’t one in the same. We should aspire to learn from our elders instead of just admiring them. That means taking an interest! Ask your parents and grandparents about their lives and engage with the older members of your community. What have they been through and how has it informed their point of view?

As it happens, there will always be disagreement (ideologically and otherwise) between generations, but we can’t learn or support our own beliefs if we can’t understand those outside our worldview. Youth comes part and parcel with mistake-making, and every older person was young once, not to mention imperfectly human throughout their lives.

You know what they say: If you don’t know your history you’re doomed to repeat it. As members of history and present all at once, our elders have much to teach us about what to do and what not to do. Learn from them, and you can repeat the good and avoid the bad.

Be inspired by your elders

If your grandmother fought for women’s suffrage, that’s inspiring. If your grandfather fought in WWII, that is too. If your parents were immigrants, that’s inspiring as well. In fact, even the basics of parenting and life are inspiring: raising kids, working long hours in difficult industries, enduring life’s many hurdles decade after decade.

Sometimes we take our forebears for granted. In youth, and even young adulthood everything feels so difficult and personal. The “self-centered” trait is in fact not specific to Millennials but every person in history with a developing body, brain, and perspective — as Psychology Today puts it, “it is because they are going through a process of self discovery and what may seem like an unwillingness to engage may actually be a sign of having little to no confidence to engage on an emotional level.” It can be hard to imagine that your elders dealt with every single pain as you and more, for a longer time, but it’s true. That endurance alone ought to be inspiring.

Inspiration is defined by the urge to act based on feeling. So the key here is that we aren’t just “respectful” of everything our elders experienced, but inspired to be better workers, parents, spouses, and citizens — whether simply to make them proud or to know in your bones that you’re taking what they gave you and turning it into something new.

Support your elders

The way we treat our elders is a reflection of a society and its values. While it may vary from culture to culture and person to person, it is something that can always be improved, especially as the population share of elderly persons grows year after year.

The best way to support our elders is to advocate for systems that support them — in regards to healthcare, infrastructure, housing, finance and more. An individual can only do so much to meet later-in-life needs without options that will make seniors comfortable and happy, especially post-retirement when they require greater stability and in all areas of life.

Celebrating, learning from, being inspired by, and supporting our elders paints a more expansive picture of what “respect” should look like. If we foster these things today, the next generation will do the same for us when our time comes.

Melissa Powell is COO at the Allure Group, a networked of skilled nursing facilities based in New York City. Powell has been published on Entrepreneur.com, Modern Healthcare, and Business.com.