Eldering and Relational Wisdom

Erica Dorn
6 min readApr 23, 2018

Ideas and Approaches for Developing an Intergenerational Community of Practice

Donna Schaper and Erica Dorn at Good Work Institute

I gravitate towards elders. I crave the way time seems to slow down in their presence, I notice that there is less to prove and more to learn. And that because of society’s obsession with glamorizing youthfulness, many generations are missing out on one of the greatest gifts, the ability to be in a intergenerational community that honors and values all of the ages.

This post shares some ideas and approaches for how to begin an intergenerational community of practice, a community that engages in work together in your place. The ideas shared here are intended for individuals of all ages to engage in a forgotten or unpracticed understanding of the role of the elder in society. Together older and younger people can explore, relearn, and reimagine relational wisdom in our communities, in service to local living communities and economies. Additionally, some of the ideas shared may also help in overcoming an expert-led learning paradigm by encouraging full participation and catalyzing wisdom from participants of all ages.

Attributing Gratitude:
The inspiration to contemplate and develop an intergenerational learning community stems from lessons taught by observing how nature works, through traditions passed down through my family, remembering and learning first-nation principles and traditions, and through the work and mentorship of elders Judy Wicks, Michael Jones, Donna Schaper, and Lisa Jacobsen, among many others, and what my 92 year old grandmother often professes — that history constantly patterns and repeats itself.

Eldering and Relational Wisdom

Ideas and Approaches for Developing an Intergenerational Community of Practice

So you want to develop a diverse intergenerational learning community in your place. You see relearning and reimagining the role of the elder as essential to the progress of your place. You believe that equitable sharing of wisdom from all ages is both an age-old practice and a timely, modern day phenomena. You want to engage with people with exceptional, long-life experiences who also feel they have something to learn from you.

Maybe you are holding some of these questions in mind:

  • In an age of rapid human evolution — what is the role of the elder?
  • What does the progression of dying and our vicinity to the end of life make available to us or not?
  • What are we losing vis-a-vis our society’s obsession with youthfulness?
  • How can we gain through the sharing of relational wisdom and what might that mean for our economies and communities?

An intergenerational community of practice can begin with a single mentor relationship — one where elder and junior meet and spark a mutual interest in mentoring and sharing wisdom together. The engagement could last as long as several months or many years. It could also take the shape of a ‘council of elders’ amongst an age-diverse community, with development over many years. Once an intergenerational community has been established it must continuously be replenished and learning must be shared and passed-around — with the intent that established and age-diverse communities can exist into perpetuity.

What might be needed to develop an intergenerational community of practice?

  • A desire to reimagine our economy to include mutual admiration for all ages and a distinguishing of the elder.
  • You! — a steward of the council and backbone organizer with skills at distributing ownership of experiences and community.
  • A diverse community, with many lived experiences and perspectives, including a spectrum of length of time on this planet.
  • A desire to learn together and be in a place of inquiry and open dialogue together.
  • A formal or informal set of understandings/agreements of how to engage together for mutual improvement.
  • Interest in studying and relating to foundations of spiritual traditions.
  • A commitment to engage in relationship building and passing of traditions and wisdom in all directions for an extended period of time 3- 30 years to more.
  • A willingness to slow down and explore a non-linear experience of time.

How might a group of younger people — ‘future-elders’ — help develop an intergenerational community of practice?

  • Identify the ancestors and elders that have made your work possible, individually and as organizations. Research and ask around, and learn about their legacy and lessons.
  • Take stock of the existing relationships you currently have and recognize how diverse they are across all indicators of age, ethnicity, gender, race, industry, etc. Who is missing from your current relationships?
  • Reach out to an elder from your industry and/or community letting them know about your admiration for their work and interest in creating a place-based intergenerational learning community.
  • During the meeting ask questions and mostly listen.
  • Continue this process with other elders and encourage your peers to as well.

Some questions to consider asking an elder or aspiring elder:

  1. What do you think humans need to know about living on earth today? (borrowed from Lisa Jacobson’s Catskills Radio Show)
  2. What do you wish younger/older people were doing differently?
  3. What do you most respect/admire about younger/older generations and how they learn and work?
  4. Do you consider yourself an elder?
  5. Who were your elders?
  6. What spiritual or philosophical traditions build the backbone of your thought and work? (Thanks Krista Tippett and On Being)
  7. Do you have mentoring relationships? Are you interested in them?
  8. What are some of your hardest learned lessons in life?
  9. Do you yearn to be part of an intergenerational learning community?
  10. What might an intergenerational learning community make possible?

If you already have a base of intergenerational relationships —

  • Consider creating a ‘Council of Elders’ or always including an elder on any board or advisory group. Look out for an upcoming post on how to create a Council of Elders.
  • Set-up a meeting for elders to meet one another — this can be an informal dinner — not overly facilitated meeting to start. It’s about relational wisdom so go slow, let the awkward moments of silence rest, wait for others to speak as often as possible.
  • Take it further — if there is interest, propose moving towards a place-based intergenerational gathering like the ‘Conscious Eldering’ gathering.
  • Show others what is possible and become an ‘Elder Ambassador’ — consider announcing publicly that an intergenerational community has been formed and list some of the ways that the broader community could engage with the group ie. bringing them on as mentors, include them at a dinner party, write about their legacies and their lessons hard learned to be passed on for community benefit, etc.
  • Keep it flourishing — it’s ideal that the community brought together during the gathering will continue to meet on their own volition, gathering formally and informally overtime. If you played a role in sparking the community it will likely be important to continue playing an essential role in continuing to keep the group connected and you can enlist the help of many others and pass the torch around.
  • Continue to develop — consider creating an annual meeting or gathering, formal and informal dinners, sharing the good stories of what has been generated through this relational network, and continuing to remind the group the reason they all decided to come together and what’s possible by working together to build a future beyond all of our lifetimes combined.
  • Be mindful of — initiating an elder before they /you are ready; finding a skilled intergenerational facilitator to hold some of the conversations, and decide whether to maintain and develop the relational community that you begin or let it emerge without clear aims and outcomes.

In conclusion, when people of all ages explore, relearn, and reimagine together — we can create a fabric of relational wisdom in our communities and, in service to a future that will flourish far beyond our lifetimes.

I’d love to hear about how you are developing intergenerational communities! Please share your stories in the comments below and email me at — erica.dorn@gmail.com

Judy Wicks at Good Work Institute

Existing Conversations:
Join and look out for updates from out “Relational Wisdom gathering” in partnership with Wild Earth, the Good Work Institute, Conscious Elders Network, and Sage Arts - stay tuned on our sites for more info.

Associated learning:
Shifting Time at Ted Radio Hour
Join or start a Death Café or Death over Dinner
Approaching the End of Life by Donna Schaper and the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Thanks to Alexa Clay for her leadership of a collaborative and distributed research project initiated by Royal Society for Arts and Manufacturers that spawned this post.

Photo from Good Work Institute

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Erica Dorn

Erica is social choreographer and doctoral student in Transition Design at CMU— she locates with her itinerate play about Last Chance, CO.