Growing Older and the Modern Elder Academy

Participants at a Modern Elder workshop in Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia. Photo courtesy of MEAx Australia

IO – After 13 years as the director of the Foundation for the National Archives Museum in Jakarta my job came to an end and when it did I was left rather confused. The work of the Foundation had been very successful in terms of restoring and maintaining the beautiful 18th century VOC governor’s manor house, generating a self-sustaining income and making the public not only aware of the beautiful heritage building but also fond of it, with the number of visitors to the building increasing tremendously. Nevertheless, the government shut us down which was a bitter pill to swallow and I was left at the age of 58 without a job which meant not only without an income but also with the daily structure of my life and the identity I had created through my work there, also gone.

The following few years were not easy. It was not simple to immediately find new work. At one stage I had to sell my mother’s diamond ring to make ends meet. I also had to come to terms with emotions ranging from anger to fear to even at times depression. I remember once lying on the grass and gazing at the sky and asking in despair, “What do you want, God? What do you want of me? What am I supposed to be doing?” There was also the fear of growing old and irrelevant and that having to face death one day was no longer a very distant event. It took a number of years for me to sort out the third and last phase of my life and is probably something that we continue to do until the day we die. Nearly everyone has to face this at a certain point in their life.  It is a time of transition and rites of passage.

Danny Yatim is a 65-year-old Indonesian academician and practicing psychologist specializing in developmental psychology. In the past for him this only covered lecturing about children and teenagers. However, by 2020, 16,7% of the Indonesian population was over the age of 55 which means nearly 44,8 million people. Danny says, “ILO regards people as non-productive after they reach their 60s but in real life that is frequently not the case. I am 65 years old and still working, as is Prof Saparinah Sadli who at 95 still writes papers and gives lectures. The government is well aware that in the coming years there will be more and more of the population aging as life expectancy in Indonesia rises and that it needs to pay attention to them.”

Consequently, Atmajaya University where he teaches asked him to expand his lectures in developmental psychology to include people over the age of 55. Danny believes in active or positive ageing and comments, “The image in Indonesia is always of grandparents living with their children and taking care of their grandchildren but the reality is that more and more want to remain active. Remaining active is helpful in not only preventing dementia but also staying healthy in general. I am working on changing stereotypes about older people. Many want to continue to have their own households and what I would like to see happening is that the government creates more community centres for old people where they can meet, exchange ideas and do things together, rather than just building old people’s homes.”

Chip Conley, the founder of the Modern Elder Academy. Photo courtesy of MEA

Ira Koswara-Simms is a 57-year old Indonesian corporate communications consultant who has been an empty-nester for several years. She met Gabriela Domicelj through their children who were friends at university in Australia. At their graduation Gabriela gave her a book entitled ‘Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder’ by Chip Conley which she found very interesting and thought provoking. A few years later Gabriela told Ira about a course she was organizing called ‘Navigating Midlife Transitions’ that was linked to the Modern Elder Academy which Chip Conley had founded. Ira agreed to participate as it was a topic that personally interested her for she was herself going through a transition period at the time. It provided useful tools and she had deep meaningful discussions with the people she was grouped with who were in similar situations – some of whom later became good friends.

Chip Conley is an American hotelier, hospitality entrepreneur, author, and speaker who created the concept of boutique hotels. Through his Joie de Vivre Hospitality company he successfully managed 50 boutique hotels for 24 years. At 50, he sold his company and afterwards found himself questioning his relevance and identity. Fortunately, he was then asked by three young men who had founded a company to help mentor them. The company was called Airbnb and proved to be very successful. He enjoyed his role mentoring them as what he refers to as ‘a modern elder’ and after three years wrote a book on the subject. During the process he came to realise that many people all over the world were transitioning into a later phase of their lives. Chip Conley became aware that many people need help with this transitioning. He established the Modern Elder Academy or MEA in Baja, Mexico, to help people consciously curate the second half of their adult lives. MEA is the world’s first midlife wisdom school.

The Modern Elder Academy at Baja, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Ang Galloway.

MEA’s advice to people facing a midlife crisis or transitioning into their final phase of life, is to become modern elders. The concept takes the traditional idea of elders who advise younger members of their family, company or even the nation, and ensures that when they share their wisdom, they are relevant. Rather than being a ‘sage on the stage’ they are encouraged to be a ‘guide on the side.’

One example of this is the role of religion in coming to terms with death. In many modern societies especially in the West the role of religion has diminished nevertheless people still appear to need something when facing the Great Mystery of where we come from, why we are here and where we go after death. Is death the end? These are questions religions have helped us to answer. MEA seems to have found that the human spirit still needs some type of spirituality for psychological peace or balance and in facing that Great Mystery one of the things that MEA tries to help people find is their spirituality

However, spirituality is only one small aspect of what is taught at MEA. The courses basically help people to identify their strengths and help them cultivate the skills that need refreshing or need to be added to transition to a new phase in their lives. This includes such things as health, community, friendships, work and identity. In transitioning to becoming a modern elder MEA advises people to have mentors or advisors to turn to and not just older people who have experience. The course is a lot about understanding and interacting with the young because one of the things it is preparing people for is to become a wise elder who can mentor younger people, while also learning from them. So, in looking for your own mentors they advise you to also turn to younger people who understand future trends and will have the ability to look at things from a younger perspective. As the Modern Elder Academy says, “You need at least one wise elder and a wise younger.” 

The gerontologist and leadership coach, Barbara Waxman has written and spoken a lot about this stage of transitioning which she refers to as Middlescence. Barbara is known for inspiring people with insights to help them be more effective, and speaks about investing in the business of your life both at home and at work – and in many ways that is what MEA is about.

A week at the MEA in Baja costs US$ 5000 and the average age is about 54 years old although there have been people attending from as young as 30 to as old as 88 and participants have come from all over the world. In 2024, MEA will launch a 2,600 acre, retreat at the $8.5 million Saddleback Ranch in New Mexico where they will be available to help midlifers not only with their transitions, but also with consciously curating the remainder of their lives.

Modern Elder Academy at Baja, Mexico Photo courtesy of MEA.

It has been written that what Chip Conley sells is ‘embracing your age’. He teaches people how to deal with the emotional turmoil of midlife crisis. A fear and inflexibility towards change, new technology, new ideas, new people and new experiences is a challenge people must face when entering the third phase of their lives if they are to continue to enjoy a fulfilling life at full potential. A big part of what MEA teaches is how not be afraid to learn new things; they are creating a community of people who are willing to have difficult conversations and to reinvent themselves. For this reason, curiosity is one of the traits that MEA encourages the most in its students.

The community MEA is creating is both a virtual one which connects through the internet and the MEA alumni network, but it is also creating a real one. As so many people want to stay permanently at MEA in Baja, one of Conley’s co-founders, Jeff Hamaoui, is leading the development of Baja Sage, a regenerational community. Baja Sage has around 30 houses and is built around a communal market garden and large courtyard. The intention is for the community to be intergenerational, with a move away from the traditional retirement village model built around a golf course.

At MEA Santa Fe, New Mexico, two regenerational communities, will be built with a farm at the centre of the community. These will be near the new midlife wisdom school campuses. One of the buildings will be the newly purchased Santa Fe sanatorium which is a 1920s heritage building.  In some ways this is also what Danny Yatim is talking about when he wants communities and not just old people’s homes to be created for the final phase of life.

Gabriela Domicelj and husband Derek Younger at Chip Conley’s house in Baja, Mexico, June 2022. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Domicelj

Meanwhile Ira Koswara-Simms’ s friend, Australian MEA alumni Gabriela Domicelj wants to create an MEA for the Asia Pacific region. She has worked and lived in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore in management consulting and first met Chip Conley through Airbnb in 2015.  She was leading a program to identify companies with the best people management programs especially for older people, when she read his book, Wisdom @ Work. Intrigued by the concept of a modern elder, she decided to attend the workshop at MEA in Baja, Mexico called ‘Consciously Curating the Second Half of Your Adult Life’ with her husband. At that stage, she was 53 years old, on the point of leaving her corporate job, had decided to leave Singapore, was becoming an empty nester and was in the mood to dream up how best to live the remainder of her life.

Gabriela was pleased and surprised at how helpful the course was to her personally at that point in her life. She says, “What I found at MEA was a community of people willing to have the most difficult conversations. Conversations about aging parents, how empty nester syndrome feels, how it feels when you leave your job and lose your identity – but not just talking about fears but also the exciting new possibilities that exist for us. MEA offered a structured process to make the rest of one’s life as purposeful as possible. It was exactly what I needed.”

There seemed to be a demand for this kind of structured approach to the curation of one’s life amongst older people and after speaking with Chip, Gabriela decided to try to introduce the MEA philosophy and programs to her own part of the world. She began by coordinating monthly meetings for MEA alumni in the Asia Pacific region. Last year, she helping to launch MEAx Australia with an eight-week online version of the program. This June, Gabriela started residential MEAx programs in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales where in residential workshops, techniques such as stargazing, birdwatching and film making tare used to help attendees contemplate the next stage of their life. 

Dantosa, Blue Mountains Retreat, NSW, Australia. Photo courtesy of MEAx Australia

The next step is to consider a Southeast Asia location for MEAx workshops. One consideration is choosing a place where there already are MEA alumni such as in Hong Kong or Singapore. There are also several alumni in Jakarta. The alumni behind MEAx Australia believe that Asians in midlife wanting to explore what comes next will also be interested in attending workshops at a midlife wisdom school. These are often people who have been very successful in their careers but are wanting a change and would appreciate help thinking through the possibilities. Also, people who have experienced unexpected and dramatic change in their lives that are outside their control such as the death of a loved one, divorce of a long-time partner or an unexpected loss of work. These can be very traumatic experiences with sadness, fear, depression, despair and anger. Gabriela says, “I believe that people facing such a transition in their lives would benefit from an MEAx workshop.”

So, far MEA has run its residential workshops in countries with Western cultures. How would it deal with Asia which has different cultures and religions? Gabriela believes that 80% of the content of MEA’s programs is in fact relatable to people regardless of their culture or religion; only about 20 percent needs to be tailored to the specific needs of certain countries and for that they intend to have local citizens involved in running the programs. Meanwhile this July, MEA plans two online webinars for the Asia Pacific region namely ‘Tap into the Talent of Elders (13th July) and a free event ‘In Conversation with Elizabeth White’ (31 July). (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

For further information see:

MEA retreat in Baja, Mexico. Photo courtesy of MEA