Aging into the Spirit: From Traditional Wisdom to Innovative Programs and Communities

Reprinted from Generations (Journal of the American Society on Aging) Winter 1999-2000, Vol xxiii, No. 4)

When a householder sees his skin wrinkled, and his hair white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest....Let him always be industrious in reciting the Veda....In summer, let him expose himself to the heat of five fires, during the rainy season live under the open sky, and in winter be dressed in wet clothes, thus gradually increasing the rigour of his austerities....[Then] after abandoning all attachment to world objects....let him always wander alone, without any companion, in order to attain final liberation.

The Laws of Manu, M. Mueller, ed.

The Spiritual Model of Aging

What constitutes a good old age? In their new book, Successful Aging, summarizing over a decade of MacArthur Foundation-supported research, Rowe and Kahn (1998) provide the sort of answer well accepted in our culture. Successful aging involves: 1) a low risk of disease and disease-related disability; 2) a high level of mental and physical functioning; and 3) a continuing active engagement with life. "In sum, we were trying to pinpoint the many factors that conspire to put one octogenarian on cross-country skis and another in a wheelchair" (p. xii). Who can quarrel with this vision of good health, high function, and an active lifestyle, as the very model of successful aging?

The Laws of Manu (Mueller, 1971), for one. This Hindu text quoted above, penned around 100 B.C.-100 A.D., presents a radically different vision. In fact, it almost seems a brief for unsuccessful aging from the Western point of view. When one becomes a white-haired grandparent, to head off to the forest and deliberately expose oneself to the brutal elements--this would hardly safeguard health. And instead of striving to remain actively engaged with life, this forest-dweller welcomes disengagement. Age has granted one permission to cast off the myriad roles and duties of midlife. Finally, "abandoning all attachment to worldly objects," the renunciate is freed up to focus on life's true goal--achieving union with God.

Here is one example of the spiritual model of successful aging, so different from our conventional paradigm. The spiritual model begins with the primacy of the transcendent. It is based on the assumption that there is something greater than the ego-self, be that called God, eternal soul, the Tao, Buddha-Nature, or any of a hundred names. In the prime of life, we often neglect this Source. We're so absorbed by earning money, advancing a career, and raising a family that we've little time for anything else. Nor need we turn our thoughts toward an afterlife. Still young, it seems we'll live forever.

Yet age throws all this into question. Despite our vitamin, exercise, and beauty regimens the body necessarily decays. Nor is our mind impervious to bouts of forgetfulness and other distressing signs. Then there are interpersonal losses. The kids move away, we lose touch with friends, and suffer through the death of loved ones. At work, we no longer lead the pecking order. There are others, younger, cheaper, more energetic, who may take away our jobs. Thus age renders us all (to some degree) forest dwellers--stripped of our habitual identities, poised at the edge of an abyss or the Transcendent.

The conventional Western model of successful aging assume that the losses that attend age should be wherever possible combatted. Let us be that "octogenarian on cross-country skis" hanging onto midlife health and energy. But the spiritual model involves embracing the "losses" of age, using them as modes of liberation.

From this perspective, growing old can be viewed as an advanced curriculum of the soul. Life's first half had lessons of its own. In the words of spiritual teacher Ram Dass, we were in "somebody training," building an effective identity. But having mastered being somebody, we become ready for the next lesson: how to explode past that limited self-definition. Who am I, if not just this body, developing aches and wrinkles? If not just "mom" or "dad," now that the kids have moved away? If not the "Director of Personnel for a Fortune 500 company," now that I'm semi-retired? What is the true self that transcends these roles? Aging raises these questions, and may provide the time and perspective to engage them in depth..

Using this spiritual model, it is no longer clear that Rowe and Kahn's successful octogenarian on cross-country skis is better off than that apparent failure in the wheelchair. After all, the cross-country skier may be a shallow chap despite having powerful thighs. Conversely, the wheelchair-bound elder might be richer of soul. Disability may have attuned this person to the suffering of others, fostering a deep compassion. Perhaps she also learned to let others help her, a lesson in humility. And who knows how she spends those long hours sitting? Maybe it's a time for inward meditation, or intercessory prayer for the world. Successful aging involves coming to a wholeness of soul, whether on skis or wheelchair-bound.

As I discuss in Spiritual Passages (Leder, 1997), different traditions teach different routes to later-life spiritual wholeness. The Hindu renunciate sets off on a contemplative quest. This is a path well worth honoring in our action-obsessed culture. But it is not the only one, and hardly exhausts the variations on the spiritual model of aging. Buddhists remind us of the need to face and accept death. The Jewish story of Sarah and Abraham speaks to later-life rebirth, joyful and creative. Taoism reconnects aging to the great cycles of nature. The passion of Jesus explores the loving connection to God and neighbor that can transform suffering into grace.

Here, I will focus on just one contrast to the Hindu renunciate--that presented by a Native American elder. Listen to the voice of Audrey Shenandoah, Eagle Clan Mother of the Onondaga Nation:

People choose a clan mother by watching how she has lived her life and cared for her family. She has to be someone who has a family and knows the responsibilities of being a mother, because that's evidence that she will take care of all the people as if they were her children....Clan mothers also have the duty of selecting a candidate for leadership chief in the clan....If a chief has to be replaced for behavior that is unbecoming to his position, it's our responsibility to find someone to take that place. If we see him going on in a way that is not acceptable, we must approach him and remind him of his responsibilities. In our language, it's called "bringing him back to his feet."

One of my deepest concerns right now is about our youth....I tell them, if you find yourself in a position where you have to make a major decision, think about the things that are taught in the Longhouse, and ask yourself, "Is this going to bring harm to myself, or to any other living thing?" Basically, that's what we call respect--respect for yourself, respect for people around you, and respect for the earth (Johnson, 1994, p. 194).

This example is quite different from that of the Hindu forest-dweller setting off on a solitary quest. Here, the elder remains within the tribe, taking on a guiding role. Through the blessing of long life, the elder remembers, gathers, and preserves that which is of most value from the past. She or he has the perspective to be far-sighted about the future, and to see the interconnection of all things. Hence, the elder, in traditional cultures the world over, mentors the youth, provides direction for the tribe, and presides over ritual observance.

In our modern Western world, obsessed with youth and the latest technology, our need for such elder-wisdom has all but been forgotten. Yet this need has never been greater. We live in a time of widespread materialism, spiritual confusion, addiction, oppression, and violence. Elders might indeed help "bring us back to our feet."

With elongating lifespans, the number of seniors is rapidly growing. Pundits and politicians warn of the consequent drain on our resources. But what if we viewed this "graying of America" instead as yielding a precious resource, an expanding pool of elder-wisdom?

Yet elder-wisdom does not follow automatically from long life. We all know those who have grown not more enlightened, but more inflexible with the years. For age to produce a sage a process of spiritual seasoning is needed.

Our current society does little to support this process. Social Security and retirement plans attend to our financial needs. Medicare, health care professionals, nursing homes, minister to the aging body. But where are the programs and communities built to nurture the elder-soul?

True, houses of worship have their senior programs. Nursing homes and retirement communities hire chaplains and hold services. Pastoral care is there for the sick and dying. Many labor well in such vineyards. But we also need to "think beyond the box" and envision radically new ways to support later-life spirituality. .

While on fellowship with Chicago's Park Ridge Center for the Study of Health, Faith, and Ethics, I designed a model for a hypothetical "ElderSpirit Center" (Leder, 1996). Such a center could provide spiritually-oriented classes, retreats, resources, and guidance for visitors and affiliates. It could also serve as a live-in residential community for those who, like the Hindu forest-dweller, wish to use the later years for focused spiritual development. The center would provide the needed "forest-space" for contemplative retreat. But, like the Native American example, it also allows one to remain in community with others, and in service to the larger world. The center might provide mentoring and outreach efforts designed to share intergenerationally the fruits of elder-wisdom.

This project has brought me into contact with those who have started to realize elements of such a dream. I will conclude this article by citing a number of examples in various stages of development. There are doubtlessly many more--I would welcome hearing of them. But those here discussed begin to sketch out the rich menu of possibilities.

Innovative Programs and Communities

Most fully evolved at the time of writing is the "Spiritual Eldering Institute" (SEI).The Institute was started in 1989 by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in affiliation with ALEPH, The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The teachings and exercises of SEI evolved out of Schachter-Shalomi's own inner confrontation with aging.

SEI conducts workshops meant to help individuals turn the aging process into a "sage-ing"TM experience, enhancing capabilities for wisdom, joy, and service. These workshops, available in a variety of formats, combine lecture, discussion, exercises, and meditations. For example, through a healing life-review, individuals are guided to forgiveness of self and others. If weighed down by unresolved issues from the past one cannot dwell fully in the present. Nor can a person who lives in fear of death, approaching from the future. SEI exercises facilitate the acceptance of mortality, and the joyful embrace of remaining life (Schacter-Shalomi and Miller, 1995).

The inner work of spiritual eldering intertwines with outward service. The SEI supports elders in doing that work modeled by the Eagle Clan Mother: mentoring the young, and providing servant-leadership within the community. SEI seeks to heal not only individuals but a fractured world in need of elder-wisdom.

The SEI now offers programs around the country to train and certify seminar leaders who can take others through the SEI curriculum. SEI is also developing "Sage-ing Centers" in conjunction with various organizations--a hospital, a health partnership, a senior center, a Jewish community center, and a university. Clients can there receive exposure to the SEI curriculum, along with specialized services--for example, help with retirement and estate planning congruent with spiritual values.

If SEI evolved from Jewish roots, another innovative group, "Jubilados," was originally founded by practicing Buddhists."Jubilados" is the Spanish word used in Central and South America for retired individuals who, having shed their careers, are "joyous," free of care.

Like SEI, Jubilados embraces an ecumenical philosophy: it welcomes participants from all traditions who are interested in contemplative practice, combined with service to others and the earth. But unlike SEI, which has evolved a core curriculum and set of exercises, Jubilados is more of the philosophy to "let a hundred flowers bloom." Based in Santa Fe, but with regional and national reach, it has offered courses for seniors in yoga, meditation, shamanism, as well as other subjects. It encourages the foundation of "elder councils" which support the spiritual growth of its participants in ways they themselves decide. Jubilados also hosts a larger annual symposium with speakers from a variety of sacred traditions.

These Jubilados programs, as the SEI, are examples of what I will call the "education and empowerment" approach to elder-spirituality. Workshops, courses, retreats, and support-groups educate and empower individuals on a quest.

However, Jubilados embraces a further vision--what I will call the "residential community" approach. Therein, individuals move beyond shared learning and support, to actually living together in spiritual community. While such a place may provide housing and services like other retirement communities, it is rendered distinctive by the shared commitment of residents to spiritual growth, practices, and values.

Jubilados hopes to form such a residential community (largely for seniors, but with an intergenerational dimension) in the city of Santa Fe. Their physical plan includes a series of structures, each subdivided into several efficency and two-bedroom apartments for rent. The community there housed would combine contemplative practice with outward service. The project would also model ecological sustainability through the use of permaculture techniques. We are reminded of the Eagle Clan Mother: the wise elder counsels respect for the earth..

Another example of the residential community approach is provided by an organization called "FOCIS"--Federation of Communities in Service. FOCIS was first developed by a group of forty-four ex-Glenmary sisters devoted to service and community development in the Appalachian region.

FOCIS, like Jubilados, is seeking to build an intentional community accessible to middle and lower income residents. But unlike the projected rental units of Jubilados, FOCIS has embraced a "co-housing" model. Pioneered in Denmark, but increasingly popular in the U.S, co-housing participants together design and build a series of homes (FOCIS plans for twenty-six) which then are individually owned. Community life centers around jointly-owned common spaces in which residents can share meals, library resources, chores, and recreational activities.

The FOCIS plan includes an interfaith ElderSpirit Center. There, community members could join in prayer, ritual, meditation, and sharing. This project, planned for the town of Abingdon, Virginia (population 7,000), is meant to serve as a replicable prototype for other ElderSpirit co-housing communities. A development grant has recently been received from Chicago's Retirement Research Foundation.

The last project mentioned here combines in novel ways the "education and empowerment" and "residential community" approaches. This is the "Senior Spirit" program started in 1996 by Lifelink, a health and human services agency serving all generations, related to the United Church of Christ. In the Chicago area approximately 1600 low-income adults, largely seniors, live in twenty-two subsidized housing residences owned or managed by Lifelink. Within fourteen of these buildings, the Senior Spirit program, also with support from the Retirement Research Foundation, has established spiritual mini-communities for interested residents. .

Six to twenty individuals meet once a week, often under the guidance of seminary-trained or pastoral care staff, to engage in ecumenical spiritual activities--different forms of prayer, Bible-study, community-building, and personal sharing. To deepen involvement, the group also gathers for monthly worship, and two or more times a year take an extended retreat. As in the other programs here mentioned, inner growth is tied to outward service: each group designs a service project meant to assist building residents or the larger community.

The Senior Spirit project is distinguished by creative networking and interchange. Ties have been built to the Chicago Theological Seminary. For participants who so desire, a Franciscan order of nuns provides in-depth spiritual direction. The Senior Spirit groups are also invited to partner with a local church or synagogue forming a mutually enriching alliance.

Recently the program also began an intergenerational partnership entitled "Spirit of Generations." Senior Spirit members regularly meet with youths, 8-20 years old, from Lifelink's foster care program. Together the seniors and youngsters are working through an interactive curriculum on "Celebrating the African-American Family." An associated intergenerational program involves once-a-month social activities wherein each kid can "adopt a grandparent," developing a one-on-one relationship over time. The elders, like the Eagle Clan Mother, may play a crucial mentoring role for these youngsters, many of whom struggle with feelings of abandonment. In turn, the senior receives back a sense of purpose, self-worth, and loving connection across the generations.

The Senior Spirit program is an example of how innovative spiritual approaches can be developed in existing institutions. Not all have the commitment to start or join an intentional community like that envisioned by Jubilados or FOCIS. The Senior Spirit model may have a broader reach, replicable in current senior housing and retirement communities. Similarly, the SEI's "Sage-ing Centers" provide a model for program development within existing hospitals, wellness facilities, senior centers, and institutes for learning in retirement.

Educational settings are surely a logical home for elderspirit work. This could take the form of specialized workshops, courses, and curricula. For example, New York's Omega Institute has already sponsored three "conscious aging" conferences that have cumulatively drawn over two thousand participants. Chicago's Park Ridge Center has developed an educational package, with handbook, leader's guide, workbooks, and videotapes, on "Spirituality and Aging." An example of a degree-granting program is found at The Naropa Institute, started in 1974 by a Buddhist meditation master, which offers an MA in Gerontology and Long Term Care Management. The program emphasizes "contemplative education," which attends equally to skill-acquisition, and to the students' inner development. Each student, alongside course work and internships, engages in a contemplative practice, such as meditation, yoga, or T'ai Chi, designed to foster mental discipline and expanded awareness. These qualities are then brought to bear on the delivery of compassionate care for elders.

The spirituality of later life can also be nurtured systematically through religious denominations and communities. For example, a Catholic movement entitled "Vie Montante" (Ascending Life), which started in France after World War II, has spread around the world and now claims some three hundred thousand participants. The movement supports the formation, within parishes and congregations, of small groups of seniors who meet regularly for prayer, fellowship, and study. Ascending Life, just now starting up in the United States, seeks to foster spirituality, sociality, and service among its participants.

The Internet also opens new possibilities for "virtual communities" of the spirit. For example, gerontologist Jane Thibault is seeking to form an interfaith "Order of Elders" to support the spiritual journey and contribution of those fifty and over. Participants would "gather" largely through websites and e-mail to inform and empower one another.


The spiritual model of aging has roots in many historical periods and cultures. At the same time, it can address novel developments in the modern Western world. We are experiencing an elongation of the life-span, but without a clear sense of the meaning of these later years for either self or society. Is later life a time for prolonging productivity, embracing leisure, or battling inevitable deterioration? The spiritual model offers a rich alternative to these options. It views the process of aging as a profound curriculum for the soul capable of enhancing both inward contemplation and outward service.

Of the four programs here focused on that embraced this model, one was started largely by Jews, another by Buddhists, a third by Catholic ex-nuns, a fourth by a major Protestant denomination. Yet they all share an ecumenical spirit that itself may be an expression of elder-wisdom. They also combine a reverence for traditional wisdom with a willingness to innovate in response to contemporary needs. Perhaps this marriage of the ancient and new is fitting while on the cusp of a new millenium.


Johnson, S. 1994. The Book of Elders: The Life Stories and Wisdom of Great American Indians. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Leder, D. 1996. "Spiritual Community in Later Life: A Modest Proposal." Journal of Aging Studies 10(2):103-16.

Leder, D. 1997. Spiritual Passages: Embracing Life's Sacred Journey. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Mueller, M., ed. 1971. The Laws of Manu. New York: AMS Press.

Rowe, J., and Kahn, R. 1998. Successful Aging. New York: Pantheon.

Schacter-Shalomi, Z., and Miller, R. S. 1995. From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. New York: Warner Books.

Individuals and Institutions (in order of article reference)

The Spiritual Eldering Institute

7318 Germantown Ave.

Philadelphia, PA 19119


P.O. Box 363

Tesuque, NM 87574

Federation of Communities in Service

P.O. Box 665

Abingdon, VA 24212

Rev. Janet Hisbon


331 South York Rd.

Bensenville, IL 60106-2600

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

260 Lake Drive

Rhinebeck, NY 12572

The Park Ridge Center

211 E. Ontario #800

Chicago, IL 60611

Naropa Institute

2130 Arapahoe Ave.

Boulder, CO 80302

Ascending Life International

7116 S.W. 110 Avenue

Miami, FL 33173

Dr. Jane Thibault

Dept. Of Family and Community Medicine

University of Louisville

201 Abraham Flexner Way #690

Louisville, KY 40202

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