“I Like to Listen”: The Need for Eldership in Challenging Times

Nader Shabahangi
Nader Shabahangi

A group of mostly elders in their 80’s and 90’s liked coming to the Elders Academy presentations every Wednesday afternoon in the cozy Forget-Me-Not-Café, a part of our AgeSong assisted living community in San Francisco.

I joined the group as participants discussed the lecture “What Builds a Community?” and shared personal reflections.

At the end of the discussion, elders wheeled out of the Café. I recognized one older resident who was about to grab the tires of his wheelchair. He was unmistakable through the gentle smile he wore continually on his face, as if he were in a perpetual state of delight.

“Excuse me, sir,” I introduced myself. “I have seen you many times at these presentations, yet have never heard you say anything.”

The gentleman beamed at me and in beautiful, slightly accented English, replied: “Oh, I like to listen.” At which point he felt our conversation was complete, and he rolled out of sight.

[pullquote]Op-ed: California Voices[/pullquote]

Tom, as I later discovered, was 95. A Canadian by birth, he had been an engineer. And, indeed, as I later discovered from our care partners, he loved listening. In the weeks that followed, Tom’s words kept ringing in my head: “I like to listen.”

What a simple, sage statement. Who says that any more? Who teaches this any longer?

The founding idea behind these Wednesday Elders Academy lectures was to elevate elders to become our teachers. Elders would tell us exactly those things we do not learn in schools and universities, but can only learn through life, through its many experiences, including pain and suffering: patience, relatedness, listening, kindness, mindfulness, compassion and the long view of life.

With the disappearance of many of our shared cultural values, we have few guideposts left where the young and younger adults can orient themselves. Elders, in passing on their hard won lessons, practice an important skill.


Eldership is a role all of us can inhabit when called upon. It is the two year-old at the kitchen table reminding the parents that they are fighting while eating. It is the young adult standing up and letting the manager know workers are hurting. It is the middle adult who calms the temperament of two people about to get into a fight.

Since becoming older does not automatically create an elder – it does not automatically create the skills needed for eldership – we often need to acquire them. We learn to understand how people communicate, connect with one another, exchange experience and knowledge, and feel heard.

Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin Atlantic and other enterprises, with musician Peter Gabriel, understood the need for wise elders, and helped fund and launch The Elders. Started in 2006 by the late Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt, Hina Jilani, Jimmy Carter and others, The Elders are global peacemakers and social change agents who stand up for marginalized groups and individuals. By bringing people together and listening deeply to all the voices present, they address human suffering and emphasize our shared humanity.

Other examples of some small groups that focus on a new elder-mindset are Elder Culture and Earth’s Elders.

What is so important about Eldership?

Eldership speaks to the ability to hold both sides of a conflict. In holding both sides, it de-escalates tension and helps create awareness and understanding. We see Eldership in action when resolutions occur, voices soften, and the many different perspectives begin to blend with the other’s point of view. As an attitude and skill, Eldership is best personified in the wise elder, the sage, or the Greek sophos.

It is the person who “likes to listen” rather than talk.

Many California organizations and associations make it their mission to help elders with needed care and services. These organizations care for the physical needs of elders, but rarely address a greater change – their essential role as elders.

Imagine focusing only on housing our children’s bodies without addressing the value they offer us as citizens of a future society?

Encouraged by friends around the world, our modest, local Café presentations have inspired the early stages of an Eldership Academy where people of all ages can learn the importance of Eldership anywhere in the world.

Imagine teenagers joining centenarians in a classroom to discuss the deep issues we face as humans. Imagine these same students learning the true value of elders, who embody the very traits we so desperately need today: patience, wisdom, long-term vision, compassion, and stewardship of the planet. In other words, deeply seeing, hearing and understanding the world of the other, as well as giving space for the unfolding of his or her reality.

Such academies would complement the growing intergenerational activities movement to create something even greater: intergenerational learning.

It is not so much that elders need our help and care; it is we who urgently need theirs.

Tom’s words keep ringing in my head: “I like to listen.” A simple yet deeply wise and essential attitude.

We need elders of any age, and especially those that can contribute Eldership, if we are to address many of the challenges in California and beyond.

Nader Shabahangi is the president of AgeSong assisted living, which includes four communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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