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Baruch Gould at Volunteer Training

Thoughts on Aging: Elder vs. Elderly

Posted December 2, 2013

MOWSF Blog | Senior Issues

Baruch speaks with guest speaker Christine Hejinian, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist at the C.G Jung Institute of San Francisco

Baruch speaks with guest speaker Christine Hejinian, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist at the C.G Jung Institute of San Francisco, at a MOWSF volunteer mixer on the Psychological Aspects of Aging. The event was held in November and hosted at the office of Farella Braun + Martel.

Recently at an event for MOWSF volunteers, our guest speaker related some of her experiences as one of the oldest persons in a group of nature enthusiasts. The group stayed together for many days as they enjoyed hiking and rafting in the Grand Canyon. She made a comment regarding the difference between being seen and treated as “elderly” and being seen and treated as “an elder.”

That particular comment stayed with me because the difference between the two is quite significant in our culture. Being “elderly” is most often pejorative, implying weakness, fragility and irrelevance. Whereas being an “elder” connotes a person to whom one would go for wisdom and insight; elders have something to contribute whereas “the elderly” need to be taken care of.

Many years ago, before I entered my senior-hood, I attended a dinner meeting with colleagues. Due to a transitory physical condition, however, I was unable to speak. After being greeted, seated and welcomed by others at my table, I quickly realized that my inability to speak was causing me to be ignored. After a while I felt invisible and stopped even trying to listen to what was going on around me. This memory came back to me when I heard our recent speaker talk about how “elderly” people are often ignored and treated as if they do not exist.

I am intrigued with the idea of “elders” as “watchers.” In social situations, when seniors can easily be left out because they do not know the latest fads, jargon, or technology, everyone loses out by acting as if the senior did not exist. There are different ways of participation and active, albeit silent, presence is one of them.

Instead of just looking at old people as “elderly” we need to honor them by remaining conscious of their presence and the gift they give us by their watchfulness. A silent watcher can be a source of wisdom and deep understanding. Many cultures know this. Our culture needs to.

“Thoughts on Aging” is a column by Baruch Gould, MOWSF’s Manager of Volunteer Programs, on issues related to seniors and aging. You can reach him at

More Photos from the Volunteer Mixer, “Psychological Aspects of Aging”: