These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.

Carole Christopher supports elders to be good ancestors. As a guiding elder for Vancouver’s Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC), this 82-year-old is convinced that with some support, many older people can provide a well of wisdom for young people, their organizations and society.

Tell us about your projects.

I’m an executive member of SPEC’s board. I also lead the SPEC Elders Circle, which offers an online course, Reclaiming our Role as Elders, equipping participants to bring their skills and wisdom to organizations. I am co-authoring a book on this topic.

From left: Carole Christopher, SPEC administrator Barbara Joughin and SPEC summer intern Chaima Jensen. Photo submitted by Carole Christopher

How did this get started?

When I stepped down as president of SPEC’s board in 2018, I was honoured to take on a new mantle of “guiding elder” and saw it as an opportunity to ask different questions. This was so rewarding, I wanted to share the joy. We surveyed over 100 community groups and dozens of individuals asking what value elders could add and pilot-tested several modules The resulting insights shaped the program.

Climate wisdom for the ages. Carole Christopher is convinced many older people can provide a well of wisdom for young people, their organizations and society. #climate #ClimateCrisis #FoodSecurity

Participants deepen their understanding of their knowledge, skills, character and values and discern the kind of legacy they want to leave. They learn how organizations behave, consider the importance of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, gain experience interacting with youth and receive guidance from Indigenous elders. We upgrade their computer skills and teach effective and safe use of social media. We study effective communication around climate change, share our climate grief and anxiety and remember to reconnect with nature. Graduates develop a sense of how to live their legacy in their volunteer contributions to the organizations they care about. Registration for the next course is here.

How might a guiding elder help?

Guiding elders bring a broader view to their organizations. For example, when SPEC needed to fill a key vacancy, I asked if this might be an opportunity to revisit our organizational structure. As a result, we are exploring a form of governance called Sociocracy to strengthen our entire team.

Mindful acceptance of our age, character and life experience can enhance self-awareness and allow us to let go of control. Often we see potential in younger people before they do and sometimes, we can identify opportunity in crisis.

For more than 50 years, we have had the technology and knowledge to protect our climate. What we have lacked is wisdom. Properly equipped, we can bring more of that into the discussion.

Carole Christopher, centre in the red sweater, and members of the SPEC board. Photo submitted by Carole Christopher

Tell us about your background.

As a young PhD student in nutrition science, I learned of the injustices created when only some have enough nutritious food. My questions about a system that allows this to happen when we have plenty for all, led me to a life spent in social justice work. But whether I was active in faith communities opposing nuclear war, campaigning for fair trade and labour laws, advising the City of Vancouver on food security as chair of its Food Policy Council, or encouraging elders to get involved with social and ecological issues, these issues never seemed separate to me.

I thought the silos in which progressives worked were unhelpful and in the 1980s, conceived of and hosted The One Conference, bringing peace, justice and environmental groups together to examine common concerns. Much to my dismay, an intense conflict erupted between those who believed we should work inside business and those who believed we could not. Someone handed me the microphone and I was able to draw out a common purpose from the group. But while I felt inspired and blessed in that moment, I did not understand where it came from. That led me to study mediation and process work so I could be reliably helpful when groups intent on pursuing the common good have conflict. I have used those skills many times over the years.

Designing this current program draws on all my life experience and challenges me to grow every day.

What makes it hard?

Self-limiting ageism is pervasive in our culture. Too many say, “Oh, I am old. I have nothing to contribute” or “No one cares what I think so why should I bother?” That is sad and a huge waste of resources we really need.

The urgency of the climate crisis leaves many feeling they must work all the time. But wisdom only comes with self-reflection and some balance. I find it hard to remember that I need the restorative energy I get from singing jazz, daily long walks, caring for my friend’s dog, spending time with my husband, friends and young people and in my garden.

Carole Christopher with her dog Lucy. Photo submitted by Carole Christopher

What gives you hope?

The generations coming up are breaking apart the binaries of opposites or either/or and replacing them with something more generative: the understanding that sometimes two apparently dissonant things are true or that different parts can be useful in seeing the complex whole. For them, it's not enough to be just female or male, all individual benefit or all common good, all corporate or all not-for-profit. This ability to lean into uncertainty and embrace the grey is an attribute of eldership. They are beating us to it.

What would you like to say to younger people?

So many of your elders care deeply about your future. Ask them to help you in ways that will allow them to be a good ancestor.

What about older readers?

It’s important to have practices and pleasures that are relaxing and restorative, but nothing is more rewarding than a deep sense of purpose from serving your community.