My ElderQuest

Crossing the Chasm from Older to Elder

It's been said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes.  But I think there's a third: the most fundamental law of human nature is..."each and every day....we're getting older and older."  Every day is one step further away from adulthood and one step closer to "old age." 

Plus, we are living in the "Longevity Era" where life expectancies of 20-25 extra years beyond retirement are possible.  How will you deal with these extra years?   

Although we try hard to deny it, society today is structured to focus on youth and staying young; and, in spite of our society's heroic efforts, we are reminded of Ben Franklin's words, "Time goes, you say.  Alas, time stays, we go."

One of the most cataclysmic events in history is taking place right now: over 110 million people are on the verge of retiring.  Plus, 1/3 of all Americans are over the age of 50!!  

How is this affecting your business and your employees?  Are you prepared? How will your employees plan for those extra years?  Are your HR systems set up to help or hinder?  Do you have the right policies to address these issues?  Are you aware of your own demographics?  How will this affect your HR Strategy?  Your Business Strategy?  Your Succession Plans? Knowledge Retention?  Company Values?How will your HR systems help or hinder this process?

It's easy to grow old.  For most people it just involves doing nothing.  That is, doing what we normally do: let the law of "1-day" just take effect.   Then, after enough "1-days," we look in the mirror and ask, "Where did the time go?"  "What did I do with my life?"

"Over the hill." "Out to pasture." "Twilight years." "Retired."

"These words reflect a stubborn myth - that aging is a negative experience and that 'successful aging' amounts to nothing more than slowing the inevitable decline of body and mind.  Rubbish.  Some of life's most precious gifts can only be acquired with age: wisdom, for example, and mastery in hundreds of different spheres of human experience that requires decades of learning.  Growing old can be filled with positive experiences, and 'successful' aging means harnessing and manifesting the enormous positive potential each one of us has for growth, love, and happiness."       Gene D. Cohen in the Introduction to his book, The Mature Mind

The aged and elderly are, by and large, unwanted in our society.  It's apparent in the number of nursing homes, retirement communities and raging ageism in our work and social environment.  Here, we grow old and shuffle ourselves off, or get shuffled off to a retirement community or to an assisted living arrangement.  There are no rituals or rites of passage to becoming an elder.  It's hard to become an elder because it is not valued in our society.

This raises some questions about how we want to age and when should we seriously start to think about it?


The ElderQuest is an imaginative and new approach to the experience of aging. It’s a rite-of-passage during which we seek insights into our future. It’s based broadly on what the eminent historian and writer, Joseph Campbell has called “the monomyth” or “heroic journey,” such as Homer’s “The Odyssey.” What Campbell refers to as “An allegory of the soul’s journey to enlightenment.”

         The ElderQuest is a search for purpose, meaning, wisdom, happiness, engagement, and integrity as we age and become elders.   It is a new and more positive narrative for successful aging.

If you're over 45 years of age, I'll bet you spend a significant amount of time thinking about what will happen to you when you are older and ready for retirement.  I'll bet you think a lot about how it's going to affect you, your life, your family, your work.  

Harry R. Moody, in his Forward to a book called The Spirituality of Age, writes...

​"Aging, as we all know, comes whether we like it or not.  If consciously accepted, our sense that time is short, and many important questions are yet to be answered, can be a moment of "calling":  a wake-up message summoning us to what is deepest and most authentic in us.  This is the 'going home' Call that some of us who are not only aging but aging consciously, are fortunate indeed to hear."

He continues..."Not everyone does, and some of those who hear the Call just press the snooze-alarm and go back to sleep: 'Yes, I'll get to that when I'm retired' or 'some questions just don't have answers' and so on."

"But if the question, 'How shall I live?' becomes pressing, even irresistible, then we move into the next stage of our soul's evolution, when we recognize that we need guidance, we need a map.  In its most elemental form, we need to know that we're not crazy.  We need to talk to others who have gone through a similar process if we're to find the guidance that we need."​

​I first began to think about this when I was about 45 years old.  I hadn't really thought much about aging or retiring before that time but I knew, at my age, I needed to begin thinking about it.  I worked for ARCO - Atlantic Richfield Company at the time and we purchased a pre-retirement program from the National Council on Aging to help our employees understand some of the issues surrounding our impending aging process.  

I think the time to start thinking about these questions is about right at the age of 45.  It reminds me of what Theodore Roosevelt once said:

"Old age is like everything else.  To make a success of it, you've got to start young."​

​I think we become much better off financially, emotionally, and psychologically, if we anticipate, prepare, and plan for it.  As Jack Welch, the very well-known CEO of General Electric Company and considered one of the most innovative and successful CEO's in American business, said..."Change before you have to."  I think that applies not only to business but to preparing for aging as well.

​If you are under 45 years old, you need to start thinking about  If you are over 45 years old, you need to start preparing for it...NOW!!

How do we do that?  Most of us tend to ease into old age or into becoming older.  We may carefully plan our financial future but few ever think to plan our emotional or psychological future.  I think there's a better way to approach our "golden years," one in which we intentionally plan for it; one in which we anticipate, craft and create a future that is more meaningful, happier, and more engaging.

I'm indebted to Dr. Bill Thomas, a Geriatrician, for his invaluable insight into issues of aging and, particularly for his idea that we must begin thinking about reframing our notions about aging by making the transition from "adulthood" to "elderhood."

Dr. Thomas frequently speaks at TED Talks.  The following is a speech he made at TEDxSF recently.  I think you'll enjoy him.


Elderhood is defined in the dictionary as "The state, quality, or condition of being an elder."  Somehow, that doesn't tell me anything about what elderhood is.  I prefer the description of elderhood as described in the Mankind Project:

"Elderhood is about the gifts that age bestows; gifts unique to those who have lived long enough to have learned much of what life is all about, and remain curious about what's yet to come.  Elders have seen the cycles of life, have witnessed the ebb and flow, and have gathered insight and learning from their experience as to what works and what doesn't."

"Elderhood is like the ability of the roman god, Janus, who was, at the same time able to see back into the past and forward into the future, yet remain grounded in the present.  It takes many years to amass the wisdom this feat requires.  Some never reach that place."

"Elderhood is about...

  • Attitude...not age
  • ​Humor...feeling the joy of life
  • ​ tell it like we see it
  • ​Memories...and stories to pass on
  • ​Mortality...and facing the End Game
  • ​The Giveaway...sharing our experiences and wisdom
  • ​Mentoring...and passing on wisdom to the young
  • Spirit...and knowing the true sources of our being"

I believe this is a truer reflection of what elderhood is all about.  A critical question, though, is, how do we achieve elderhood?  How do we make that journey?  How will we cross that chasm...from adulthood to elderhood?

Rites of Passage

Many will achieve elderhood naturally.  Others may never achieve it.  Some will choose to follow a path that I chose - a rite of passage.  

A rite of passage is described by Steven Foster and Meredith Little of The School of Lost Borders as " experience of symbolically passing from one life state to another - to move from letting go to a state of beginning."​

True rites of passage are seriously out of favor in our contemporary society.  There are many ceremonies that we participate in that often act in the place of rites of passage, such as retirement ceremonies, but they can't really replace them.  Why? Because many of them are difficult and time consuming.  We prefer to read about them in our literature or in the National Geographic; or watch them on the History channel or in the movies.  ​

There are a few rites of passage that we experience throughout our lives: marriage, weddings, births, graduation, funerals.  There are some rites still around that lead us into adolescence or adulthood.  For example, I'm a Marine.  And Marine Corps bootcamp is a great example of a very intense - and long - rite of passage into manhood.  A rite of passage involves some sequence of rituals and ceremonies that culminate in the experience of a new state of being.  

There is one rite that is missing, however.  That is the transition from the state of adulthood to the state of elderhood.  We pass into our "senior" years or into "old age" without much fanfare or true consideration as to the emotional and psychological aspects attached to it.​

In my case, I had just turned 65 and wanted to seriously inquire as to what elderhood was all about.  I'm a messenger for a particular approach to growing into and growing as an elder, an approach based on a rite of passage called the Vision Quest -- but one I call The ElderQuest.

I purposely and intentionally used the vision quest as my rite of passage into elderhood.  I observed and recorded most of it and I use that experience to coach others who are struggling with the transition from growing older to growing as an elder.

The Quest

Quest, from the Latin, "quesitum" to seek or to ask.  It was originally used by 19th Century European Anthropologists to describe the practices of many of the ancients, the religious prophets, eastern gurus, and Native Americans for the rituals of isolating themselves from their societies and fasting for short periods of time in order to seek some form of both enlightenment and signs of their future or their tribe's future.

It is an experience of symbolically passing from one life stage to another; to move from letting go of one state to the beginning of another.

But, what is a Quest?  In Native American lore, it's an attempt to achieve a vision of one's future through a guardian spirit.  It's gained through fasting, isolation and meditation.  A guardian spirit may not be a literal vision or a dream.   It's more likely to be an intuition or a revelation.  It is one of the most universal and ancient means to find spiritual guidance and purpose.   Consider the experiences of Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed, who separated themselves from the world and came away with life changing insights.​

Not everyone can and will be open to this sort of experience.  One must have, or be willing to develop, the belief that, by participating in a rite of passage such as this, they will achieve something greater and more satisfying for their life.

  • The ElderQuest - Led by a guide, but focused solely on making the transition to elderhood by journeying through five stages: REFLECTION-SEPARATION-TRANSITION-INTEGRATION-RESOLUTION.  These can be conducted in any location, including a remote location or a conference room and are usually 5 days in length, with, at most, one day of fasting.
  • The Alternative Quest.  A modified version of the quest which can be performed in limited modes at home, in a garden, or in a park.  

The goal of the ElderQuest, is to be able to cross that chasm from adulthood to elderhood so that we don't just become older but we become an elder.  Plus, we also strive...

  • To discover more about one's self
  • To connect one's past life with the present and an expected future
  • ​To set personal goals for one's future life
  • ​To better understand the nature of one's purpose and meaning in this life and one's future life
  • ​To discover one's personal power and connect with the power within one's self
  • ​To develop the clarity of vision about what one wants one's future life to be about
  • To discover that one has an inner guide who can help us overcome fears about our future and build a positive approach to aging.

Honor the Past -- Live Fully in the Present -- Create a Positive Future

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