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#407 Celebrating age and wisdom

October 26th, 2018

The Aging of Aquarius: Igniting Passion and Purpose as an Elder

by Helen Wilkes

Gabriola Island: New Society, 2018

$17.99 / 9780865718944

Reviewed by Alan Belk


“Elderhood is not conferred by virtue of age; there is no greeting card, no welcoming party,” muses Ormsby reviewer Alan Belk after reading Helen Wilkes, The Aging of Aquarius: Igniting Passion and Purpose as an Elder, a book that explores the strategies open to elders for successful and fulfilled retirements. Belk notes that congenial and constructive options for elderhood include “Reading for people, making music, having conversation with people, talking about your life history, teaching people, or protesting pipelines and dams.” — Ed.


I have always wanted to change the world, to make it a better place. Perhaps you have too. Lots of things get in the way: education, raising children, working in a job you may loathe, divorcing acrimoniously, and retiring. But if you are in the last of these life stages, then the good news is you still have a chance to do what you have always wanted. (If you prefer not to play golf.)

Vancouver writer Helen Wilkes thinks you have a better chance of being successful now because retirement will free you to use the experience you have gained over a lifetime of growth. We live in a culture that does not always celebrate age and the wisdom that accrues with it, as evidenced by the unflattering words available to describe those of us of pensionable age.

Wilkes, a retired professor of French literature, chooses to describe herself as an elder, a term that acknowledges that wisdom is a cultural resource, particularly in societies that do not primarily transmit culture through writing. But wisdom, perhaps, in the age of Wikipedia is not as valued as it should be. Elder is an instructive choice of term because it shows that we seniors need to define ourselves and reject the labels that are pasted on us. We must be active, not passive, and being an elder is an activity we can engage with and participate in.

But even elders may be at a bit of a loss when it comes to changing the world because no one has given us a game plan, and it is difficult to break out from a life of conforming to social expectations. Fortunately, Wilkes can help us along the way with some practical help.

Helen Wilkes

Elderhood is not conferred by virtue of age; there is no greeting card, no welcoming party. We must choose to become an elder on our own and on our own terms. Becoming an elder requires self-examination and self-assessment. Do you want to do something you are comfortable with or do you want to take risks and extend your comfort zone? The key to being an elder is to offer your wisdom as a gift to other people, often in small ways.

Self-examination can be difficult, particularly if we view ourselves in terms of success or failure, and it is challenging because we may not want to see what we find. At the end of each chapter Wilkes provides a section on “Ideas and Actions.” For example, “Have you been hiding in a false self? Write down the names of any voices from the past (or in the present) that are making you feel small, unworthy, and incapable of further growth.”

The voices inside our heads are powerful and difficult to ignore. I suspect we pay more attention to the negative ones than the positive ones, to our detriment. But it is never too late to challenge and overcome them, and if we sit down with a paper and pencil and try to answer honestly Wilkes’s question, then we are made slightly better even by that action, because we have acted positively to address something that may have been bugging us for most of our lives.

Improving our own lives by knowing ourselves better and being honest with ourselves is one part of becoming an elder. The other part is to give to other people. As an elder, you know what you are good at and what you like doing, and you have overcome your false self. What can you do? You must find your own answer to this question, but some activities that can have a great effect on other people’s lives can be simple to do. Reading for people, making music, having conversation with people, talking about your life history, teaching people, or protesting pipelines and dams. Some of the over 200 arrestees protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion are retirees.

Jean McLaren, 87, on her way to be arrested at Burnaby Mountain, November 2014. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa

The thread running through The Aging of Aquarius is that improving ourselves through honest self-assessment and self-appraisal must be coupled with a desire to better the lives of other people, and we must act on that desire to be successful in bettering ourselves. This reflects the idea of Aristotelian virtue, which is that we must balance our responsibility to ourselves with our responsibilities toward others in order to flourish as human beings. If we concentrate only on our own wellbeing, or if we sacrifice ourselves to ensure the happiness of others, we are not living a virtuous life. And if we do not lead a virtuous life, we cannot be spiritually happy.

One possible downside of self-examination is having to face up to one’s own death. For Wilkes, who escaped Nazi Germany as a girl in 1939, coming to terms with death has heightened her own spirituality and made her more open to the possibility of an afterlife. For me, not so much.

But we do agree on one thing. Compared to the richness of life, and the unlimited potential of human beings to flourish in their lives, death is not significant. If you accept this view, you will want to become an elder, and Helen Wilkes can help you do that.


Alan Belk

Originally from the south of England, Alan Belk drove a school bus before teaching ethics, critical thinking, existentialism, and all sorts of philosophy to undergraduate students at the University of Guelph. He migrated to Vancouver in 2016 and sustains himself by doing philosophy for SFU’s Continuing Studies program.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Editor/Designer/Writer: Richard Mackie

Publisher/Writer: Alan Twigg

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. As of September, 2018, Provincial Government Patron: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Helen Wilkes

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