The concept is simple. In a public place, an older adult sits on a green bench that is marked with the hashtag #ElderWisdom. Community members are invited to sit and engage in conversation about the senior’s life, experience and insights. Afterwards, community members can share about their experience on social media, using the hashtag. The seniors take stories of the encounter back to their own circle of friends.
Schlegel Villages, a chain of long-term-care and retirement communities based in Ontario, is championing the #ElderWisdom green bench effort as a way to combat negative stereotypes about seniors, and to help older people engage with the wider community.
“The greatest untapped resource in Canada, if not the world, is the collective wisdom of our elders,” asserts Ron Schlegel, a Mennonite and founder of Schlegel Villages. Encounters like this help pass on that wisdom and provide meaning for all the generations involved.
Older adults play an important role in society and within the church. As part of a food bank effort in Rosthern, Sask., experienced gardeners partner with children to grow food for sharing in the community (see the story here). Residents of a retirement community in Winnipeg work with Grade 4 students to bake chocolate chip cookies, with fun and friendships emerging (see the story here). In our feature article that begins on page 4, Jane Kipfer points to the insight that elders offer to younger people in the congregation, as “mentors in life and faith.”
A mentor could be defined as an experienced and trusted adviser, a guide or even a coach. Mentorship involves two people building a relationship that grows in depth and feeds on trust and communication. Both partners are enriched.
In the book Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat highlight “the diligent practice of kindness, listening and nurturing” that is essential to being this kind of spiritual friend. “These special individuals draw out the best that is in us. They are witnesses to our self-discoveries and spiritual unfolding,” the authors point out.
I can think of several mentors in the Bible. Mother-in-law Naomi teaches her daughter-in-law Ruth how to get along in an unfamiliar culture. The priest Eli mentors the boy Samuel in how to listen and respond to God. Older relative Elizabeth spends time with young Mary as they experience their unexpected pregnancies together. The Apostle Paul writes letters to young Timothy with advice on how to live as a Christ-follower.
In recent times, we have recognized the value of good mentors as part of the church’s faith formation. Sometimes congregations establish official mentoring programs, matching each youth with an older member and encouraging the pairs to develop a friendship through activities and conversation. (See “Helping the youth of today,” Canadian Mennonite, June 27, 2011.)
Sometimes the mentoring happens informally and almost imperceptibly, as we live in relationship with others who have “gone before.” A recent widow watches and learns from older widows in the congregation about how to live in her new reality. A retired schoolteacher offers encouragement and advice to a young adult dealing with the complexities of the educational system.
CM told the story of Lee Hiebert and how elders in his life helped bring him back to faith and eventually into the role of a pastor. (See “Prodigal pastor,” Oct. 9, 2017, page 4.)
Recently, a pastor who works with young adults in settings outside the traditional church told me that the young people she knows express interest in connecting with older mentors. This is a reminder to seniors in our midst that they have a role to play in the sharing of “elder wisdom.” It’s an invitation to pay attention, learn to know each other and build relationships of trust. Mentorship could happen at the church potluck or at a local coffee shop. Maybe it could even flourish on a green park bench.
Introducing Dave Rogalsky, Eastern Canada Correspondent
Dave lives in Waterloo, Ont., with his partner Annemarie. Their two adult children, partners and two grandchildren live in the Waterloo Region. Over the past 35 years, Dave has pastored one Mennonite congregation in Manitoba and five in Ontario. He is currently the intentional interim pastor at Church of the Good Shepherd, Swedenborgian, in Kitchener. He and Annemarie are members of First Mennonite, Kitchener. He has written for Canadian Mennonite for 12 years.