A number of years ago, I was introduced to a definition of an elder that was written by a group involved in the Live Oak Project in California. A phrase from it that has shaped my thinking about caring for seniors is, “An elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.”
I must admit that as I grow older, my perspectives on this definition of an elder has shifted and grown. As a younger adult, I tended to think of it as a helpful and important reminder that the older persons in my life have much to teach and share with me. As I reflect on the many seniors I have had the opportunity to get to know over the years, it is not too difficult to see how they shared the wisdom of their lives and left a legacy.
When I was a chaplain at a long-term care center, one of the most valuable times I could spend during any day was when I would stop and visit with a resident or two who would tell stories about their lives and about how they experienced God’s grace, love and forgiveness, even when they felt they least deserved it. In more recent times, I continue to be awed by the faith and encouragement of one of my childhood Sunday school teachers, who is now in her 70s. In so many ways, she has planted the seeds of her faith legacy in the lives of her students and former students, some now in their 40s, 50s and 60s. When I was young, she helped me learn the lessons of the Bible and memorize Scripture verses, all with a spirit of encouragement and caring. Today, she continues to post a Scripture verse for the day or a word of encouragement on one of her former student’s Facebook page. Each one serves as a reminder of the power, the promise and the love of God in our lives.
It is an incredible gift to be the recipient of someone’s legacy. It can be life transforming. However, I have also learned that the opportunity to leave a legacy isn’t something that only other people do. As I grow older, I am more and more convinced of the importance of asking myself, “What legacy from the wisdom of lifelong experience am I synthesizing and sharing with others?” You see, this is the two-way blessing of legacies. Our lives can be shaped by the legacies that others share with us, but in turn, we have a responsibility and a challenge to share the wisdom we have been blessed with, and gift a new generation with its legacy.
How can we be mindful of the legacies in our lives? We can do it by being thankful for those who have shared their wisdom and lives with us. And be intentional about giving away a bit of your wisdom, experience and faith to future generations.
By Julie Berndt, M.Div., D.Min
Spiritual Ministries Consultant and Pastor