Listening to Our Elders

Mikael Wagner
7 min readSep 18, 2023

How many times throughout your life were you told about the importance of listening to your elders? For me, it was every single day growing up in a large family of elders. To survive being punished, I learned early on to pretend that I was listening which pleased my aunts, uncles, and elderly neighbours. It didn’t take long before they realised that I had heard nothing. Initially, I was shocked when it felt like I was being tested to repeat many of the facts that were being shared with me about life. I kept asking myself, why should young people spend time listening to old people’s advice about how to live their lives? My siblings and I saw them as just old, out-of-date people.

As I became a young adult I started to listen more attentively and ask lots of questions. The elders were thrilled that I showed a genuine interest in their lives and in helping me to solve many of my childhood issues. With my mother, it was mandatory that I spent time with our community elders that became part of all our extended families. To be honest, I hated it in the beginning, but grew to love hearing stories, expanding my vocabulary, eating freshly baked carrot cake, and bread pudding, and enjoying a bowl of gumbo. It was also a way for me to make them smile. In exchange, I would help them by cutting their lawns, picking items up from the grocery store for them, cleaning their homes, folding clothes, and washing dishes. In return, they would help me with my homework every day while teaching me good manners which I still practice today. Being polite to others seems to be passé and something that is not being taught by parents today, possibly because they were never taught the art of being kind to others without expecting anything in return.

Staying young, naive, and irresponsible doesn’t last as long as I hoped it would. My elders taught me that becoming a wise adult is part of the natural process of ageing. When I look at many people today it’s obvious that they are older but didn’t become wiser with age. Let’s be clear, not all elders have positive experiences to share. As we grow older, we may encounter some negative and positive experiences that change our perception of life. My older relatives brought wisdom, dependability, logic, and unconditional love. Their efforts helped to shape the future of my siblings and young cousins who were open to listening and learning. There is an old saying that “You can drive a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” As a child, I never understood this old saying. The children of today will be the elders of tomorrow and their attitudes toward older people will lay the groundwork for their future self-concept and psychological well-being.

Our elders, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other aging community members made many sacrifices to ensure that we were in good hands from the moment we were born until we grew up. Only now do I realise how difficult the process is to convince young teens to create a path that will lead to their success. Regardless of the trouble we may have gotten into, they still love us. It’s one of the main reasons why I chat with so many elderly people so I can learn more about life experiences and how to survive without fear. As a youth, I knew it was important to always give back and provide the elderly with the same care they have given us. They have always been the jewel of our families. Often, some elderly people may have been mistreated as a child and nothing, but negativity flows from them. It’s not a one-size-fits-all, as we are all different. In my family, my elders were the ones who preserved our family’s cultural and traditional values.

In my community, enjoying good food together was essential. I can still remember family celebrations or holidays when we would all come together to share meals and laugh with each other. Often there would be a misunderstanding or an argument in which our elders would stand up and take control to resolve any issue. I still smile when I think of the many wonderful meals that my family shared together. There are times, as a small boy that I can still smell the beautiful aroma of delicious food. I can remember watching my mother cook fried chicken, hoping that she would give me a bit of the fried skin to eat. It would always make our day, then we would go outside to play and tease each other. Now, when I close my eyes, I can still smell and taste the gumbo, shrimp creole, red beans & cornbread, jambalaya, shrimp étouffée, barbecue ribs, shrimp bisque, bread pudding, fried chicken, and incredible pound cakes. I can still visualise my Aunt Emily falling asleep while mixing the batter for one of her prize-winning cakes. As children we would sneak into the kitchen, grab a spoon, and taste the delicious cake mixture, then we would wake her up only to be questioned on the number of cups of sugar used and whether butter and other extracts were used. We had no idea but would always giggle with each other. My cousins and I would take turns watching to make sure all the right ingredients had gone into the mixture. Sampling the small test cakes was always a highlight of the process. The samples allowed our aunt to taste what may be missing or if there was too much of one of the substances.

Our elders would tell us stories about their lives, the struggles they encountered, and how they were mistreated because of the colour of their skin or the texture of their hair. We listened very carefully, and my older brother would hit me on my head when I asked too many questions. It was a time that I learned the meaning of active listening and observing the information. According to Stephen R. Covey, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. Our elders taught us to never be afraid of anything and to deal with fear. They told us that we could succeed at anything that we wanted, but it would be hard work, worth every hour used to reach those goals. They taught us to believe in ourselves even during difficult times. They taught us about strength we didn’t understand as children, but today we are resilient and always ready to fight for our rights and the rights of others who feel they don’t have a voice or a seat at the table.

Throughout my career, I have worked to involve young children in the lives of elders residing in senior or elderly care facilities. Initially, the elders were as nervous as the young people. Neither were certain of what to share or discuss with each other. I would always kick off the conversation with the question, “What would you like to share about yourself today or what is your favourite food to eat.” Watching the elders and the young ones communicate with each other was a positive moment because I could detect the lightbulb going off in all their heads and they started to connect with each other. Many elders are wise because they have been able to connect the dots in life and learn from their experiences. They taught us, children, how to strategise and plan for what we really desire in life. Learning self-awareness and being able to self-correct is essential to a good life.

Respecting our elders is a basic attitude that is being shown to the superior person. It shows gratitude and respect. Respect does not deal with misbehaving with the elders or disrespecting an individual. It is all about respecting their experiences of life and it comes from within the soul and not from the outside world. Community elders and older bosses throughout my life taught me how to dress with style, to choose my words carefully, to show kindness to others regardless of their occupation or position in life, to interview for jobs with confidence, how to drive my first car, how to cook, to show respect and to always offer your seat to an elderly, disabled or pregnant person when using public transportation, to understand and embrace the end of life, and most importantly how to communicate well.

Most elders have lived through storms in life and learned valuable survival lessons. Even today, I still try to learn from their incredible knowledge and intelligence. Often when doing my daily routines, I usually end up chatting with elderly people while waiting in line at the post office, or grocery store, riding the tram, or simply walking for exercise. Often if someone is struggling to carry their grocery bags, I always offer to help them. Often, they look shocked and then smile and thank me for my kindness. And like being a kid again, I always end up returning home with lemons, limes, or fruit from their trees.

Ageing is a wonderful experience that I have been enjoying for the past 20 years. All my lessons in life, whether good or bad, have created a strong and independent individual who is always listening. “There is wisdom that comes from experience, and I am not going to stop learning from wise elders”, said Marcia Fudge, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

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Mikael Wagner

Mikael Wagner is a communications project manager with focus on health promotion, public relations , marketing and focus group facilitation.