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Ethics and Religion Talk: How to show respect to elders

What is the proper way to show respect for elders? Of course, things like giving up a seat on a bus and holding a door are respectful, but what else?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].


The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I think valuing their intelligence and advice, seeking their opinion, or asking for their wisdom are ways of showing true respect. Making space for our seniors to contribute and engage fully in activities is another. We need to remove barriers that would limit their participation in events. And finally to fully honor the season of life they are navigating is to see them as people with inherent worth and dignity. An elder's life is rich with many complexity. Daily they are learning lessens around letting go, self-acceptance, grief, inner peace and patience. Keeping all these things in mind would result in a greater respect of all of our elders.”

Ty Silzer, a former pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, responds:

“Respect is contextual. I remember watching a show growing up where an animated character went to shake the hand of an islander he just met. He was promptly thrown in prison, as handshakes were an insult on their island. 

“We’re told in 1 Peter 2:17 ‘Show proper respect to everyone…’ That’s not exactly a lot to go on, though.

“Recently, I offended, deeply and badly, a man I truly care about in my life—a matter of 10 minutes—but to the point I thought we might never talk again. I treated him like I do all my other friends, but not how he shows, speaks, and welcomes respect. This is context. And I, unwittingly yet wrongfully, had put my context (how I interact) above his context. We talked and I made changes to both my life and our schedule to prevent this from happening, ever again.

“Because respect is both contextual and cultural, I recommend speaking to the elders in your life. I’d ask them questions in two regards: ‘What are the ways can I show you, specifically, respect?’ and ‘What are the ways, in your opinion, I can show your peers and the elders of our area respect?’ And don’t treat it as a closed or once-and-done conversation—welcome their input into your life if they see things you can improve on in relating to them.”

Doug Van Doren, the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, responds:

“As a courtesy, I still often open doors for people, but have reached the age where younger people, both men and women often open doors for me! This is nice, and does feel respectful, though it reminds me that I look to others older than I think of myself! The most important way to show respect to others, including elders, is to engage them. That is, to notice them, speak to them. Jesus was particularly sensitive in engaging the marginalized. In our youth obsessed, techno-centric society, elders are often marginalized. If the elder is a stranger, a greeting or a smile and not getting exasperated if it takes them longer in the checkout line, shows respect. Some things, especially technical things, can take some elders longer. (Remember, electronic devices are a ‘second language’ to that generation.) Or maybe they sometimes take longer because they have learned that life is more than rushing through it, and ‘the faster you go, the behinder you get.’ If it is an elder you know, engage them in conversation. Tell them about what you are doing. If you do not engage them, they may not realize that younger people, especially adults with children still at home, always need the attention ​and affirmation of the elders.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“The foundation of the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, honor your father and your mother, is found in John 13:34… ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ A ‘grocery list’ of items for showing respect is possible but, the basis for showing respect to elders is putting yourself in the place of that person and honoring yourself by doing what and how you desire to be treated in any given situation.

“In other words, how one shows respect to one’s fellow human being, including elders, finds its foundation in respect for one’s self. I am continually amazed as how people kindly respond when you simply smile and treat them with the dignity with which I like to be treated; and, I am often shocked at how rudely some people treat others.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“One of the things that always impresses me about South Asian culture is the way in which elders are honored.  While the bulk of my experience with this has been in observing Hindus, I do know that this mindset is expressed in other religions as well. I would expect that American culture has relaxed its standards a bit too much to ever be comfortable adopting these same practices. But any attempt in this direction would be a good step. When greeting elders children will often kneel in front, touch their hands to feet of the honored ones, and then touch their own forehead. This is called “taking the dust of the feet.” I so appreciated seeing young contestants on TV doing this as they approached the judges of India’s version of American Idol.

“There is also a lack of familiarity with adults here in the West that is not known in most of Asia. I am amazed when children assume that it is alright to call me by my 1st name.

“But there are ways that elders can be shown respect that are more in line with current social standards. Besides the examples given things like offering help in any situation where one may notice an older person looking confused, aiding someone trying to negotiate crossing a busy thoroughfare. Naturally, one should offer to help in gentle manner. Some elders are hesitant to accept help right off the bat, holding onto their independence for as long as they can.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterianism teaches that the young should honor their elders as ‘superiors in age and gifts’ (Larger Catechism Q. 124). Contrary to the way of the world, we put a premium on age, not youth. We value wisdom that comes from life experience. Seniors should strive to be worthy of such honor, walking in faith, love, and wisdom. ‘Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children’ (Ephesians 5:1).

“These elders should be included in your life, not excluded. They should be consulted, not ignored. They should be welcomed and honored in your church, not sidelined and alienated. Why should anyone be made to feel a stranger in the church he or she has attended for many years? It is good to honor them on birthdays or at Christmas; but that’s just two days in a year that is often haunted by loss, loneliness, and feeling useless.

“The Heidelberg Catechism explains what God requires in the fifth commandment (‘Honor thy father and thy mother,’ Exodus 20:12): ‘That I show all honor, love, and fidelity, to my father and mother and all in authority over me, and submit myself to their good instruction and correction, with due obedience; and also patiently bear with their weaknesses and infirmities, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.​’ Random acts of kindness may not be enough.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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