Musings: Elder Wisdom

I have heard it mentioned before that “elder” is an ageless term. People with the wisdom of elders can enter into our lives when they are babies, teaching us throughout our entire lives.

It is written in the Bible that the boy Jesus sat in the temple with the Jewish elders and was considered to be among his peers. And then there is the incident with the World War II veteran at the monument dedication in Washington, DC this past June. Not only did this stalwart elder push his way through foxholes in Europe during WWII, but he had traveled half way across the country to brave the turmoil of city streets and crowds to be present with his brothers-in-arms at these ceremonies.

A hip, young network news reporter began engaging this 82-year old man in conversation, trying to capture the wave of emotions surging through the crowd of veterans, 60 years after the overseas horrors of the war had ended. Noticing the elder’s robust attitude and apparent health, the reporter prompted, “You’re 82 years old, but to look at you here at today’s events, should we say 82 years young?” “Up yer a**!” the man spat back in the microphone held to his face, commenting on what it means to have actually lived all those years and logged all those miles. The stunned and embarrassed reporter gracefully tried to move onto his next probing question, but no doubt will never forget the gift of wisdom he received that day from an elder, and one which has been shared with us today.

In a traditional sense, elders are revered because they have made choices enabling them to survive and live many years, like this World War II veteran both on the battlefield and in civilian life. We could also assume that over those many years, elders have mastered patience and have gained wisdom through experience, observation, practice, trial and error. Some elders have gained wisdom about sharing and nurturing life. Others have discovered how to be most self-serving. It is up to us to choose which elders we receive our teachings from, and which elders we select as our leaders.

In her book Divine Numerology, Dusty Bunker describes our world based on cycles of 9, the last single digit. After 9 comes 10, a one with a zero placed after it. Remove the zero and you are back at the start of a new cycle beginning with 1 and ending at 9.

In terms of aging, 9 cycles of 9 years equals 81 years. According to Bunker, at or around this age, the life path splits in two ways: an elder becomes anchored in one’s life and wisdom, or returns to the innocence of an infant-like state through conditions such as Alzheimer’s or mental illness. Quite often, mental breakdown can be due to the overwhelming burden of having to live and care for oneself in our challenging and difficult world. By taking care of elders ourselves, speaking to them respectfully, making sure they have food and comfort or offering up seating at any family or public gathering, we are teaching our children one of the most important lessons of humanity: keeping the circle of life strong and intact. The children are the future of our race and the elders are the wisdom of our past. Our circle must be strong from birth to death if humanity wishes to survive. Our culture has a long way to go in this regard, so it is important to keep elder awareness in our minds everyday. Remember to give thanks to your elders and credit to your teachers. Give back to the elders for what has been given to you.

Many people today look to modern medicine for the healing wisdom previously dispensed by tribal elders. Unfortunately, our high tech medical profession is no longer guided by wisdom and compassion for people, but has turned into an industry with a motive for profit and power. While there are individual doctors and nurses and other specialized practitioners in the medical field who are caring, dedicated and highly skilled healing professionals, the vast majority must operate within a corporate climate where profit, and not necessarily good health, is the goal. This means that most healthcare professionals are trained only in the methods of Western medicine which are most profitable for the medical industry. They must prescribe drugs and surgery for their patients when they get sick, rather than educate them about how to live healthier lives and prevent disease before it strikes, or how to use holistic therapies for health maintenance and self care. A for-profit industry wants to keep people buying their most expensive products. If people are taught how to take care of their own health and use Western medical care only in an emergency, business is cut way down.

I started to notice advertisements for prescription drugs about 10 years ago. For the past several years their presence on billboards, TV commercials, endless glossy pages in magazines and in newspapers has become a ghastly epidemic itself. In some ads, the purpose of the drug or the symptoms it supposedly cures is not even mentioned. We simply see images of pretty people dancing through fields or contentedly tending to their families or work responsibilities suggesting that if we take these drugs, we can expect the same. Of course, the drug logo and name are prominently featured, and perhaps the drug company name. As always, we are told to “Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you.” Since when does the patient ask the doctor about the cure? Isn’t the doctor supposed to know what’s best for the patient? Why are so many billions of dollars being spent to urge us to use these prescription drugs as if they were items we could purchase off store shelves?


Auntie Jeanette (right), Michella and Asniv Der Torossian, 1985.

This question has churned in my mind for the past two years as the ad campaigns have escalated, despite cries from drug companies claiming that “The cost of research is enormous! Prescription drug prices reflect these high costs! Only American-sold drugs can be assured of full potency and purity!” One day it occurred to me that perhaps the reason why these products we cannot buy ourselves are so aggressively advertised to us, even with all their ugly, lethal side effects mentioned right alongside the pretty pictures, is simply to prepare us for future use. These advertisements familiarize us with the prescription name and implant a pleasant image in our brain of what this drug can supposedly do for us so that when our doctor suggests, “I’m going to put you on Xylocadabra,” we are primed and ready to accept his suggestion even though we have already been warned what the possible side effects might be. (Hint: Avoid future lawsuits.) All we remember is, “Looks familiar. Must be okay.”

People should be outraged that billions of dollars are spent on this transparent and manipulative attempt to “educate” the public instead of offering lower drug prices to those in need of the medicine their “elders” prescribe. Clearly, this type of advertising must create enormous profit for the drug companies or they would not continue to expand their campaigns.

Western medicine is almost miraculous in its ability to treat trauma and surgically repair some damaged body parts, although even Superman Christopher Reeve could not be saved. Daily wellness care to keep your body as healthy as possible is the responsibility and privilege of each individual. Holistic healthcare offers many pathways toward this healthy goal: cooking and diet, mind and body stress reduction therapies, understanding and using the body’s natural healing energies (chi and prana) for better health, and providing overall lifestyle education. Much of this information has been handed down through generations of elders from cultures around the world. It is available to us if we choose to seek it out.

My dearly departed “Auntie” Jeanette Sisoian of Whitinsville, MA (1916-1989), once shared with me her wisdom on how to care for a childhood earache. My 6-month-old daughter, Michella, was on her third round of antibiotics in just under two months with a recurrent ear infection and I was fretting.

“Did you try a saltbag yet?” asked Auntie Jeanette.

“What’s a saltbag?” I asked? She was amazed I had never used a saltbag!

“Sew up a little pillow on the sewing machine about five to six inches square or a rectangle. Use a soft cotton, but one that’s strong and doesn’t hold the damp. Fill the bag with salt so it’s not too hard because the baby’s ear is going to be lying on it. Then heat it up in the toaster oven when she’s ready to go down for a nap and make sure it’s not too hot. Put the saltbag under her ear because the salt ‘draws.’ After an hour or so, heat the saltbag up again and turn her head so you get the other side. Anytime she even starts to get the sniffles and especially when she has a cold, use the saltbag when she sleeps.”

So I made the saltbag that day and started using it preventively. Michella never had another ear infection again. We went through many saltbags over the years due to spills and scorchings and bags on fire in the toaster oven (that was before the days of microwaves), and eventually discovered that the saltbag was good not only for earaches, but aches and pains of just about any kind at any age. And for this we say, “Thank you, Auntie Jeanette,” and to our elders everywhere, thank you for your presence, your wisdom of experience and your love.

Carol Bedrosian is publisher and editor of Spirit of Change.