Thursday, January 27, 2011

Older vs. Younger: Taming the Tension Between Generations

Generational conflicts are a fact of life. Throughout history, older people (even in ancient Greece) have complained about the irresponsibility or rudeness or general cluelessness of the young. And the young have found their parents and generations beyond totally out of touch, hopelessly old-fashioned and obtuse.

However, lately the traditional conflicts between older and younger generations have taken some unsettling turns. It is obvious when reading newspapers, magazines and listening to television or radio news. There are letters to the editor ranting about Baby Boomers and what a drag they are and will be on society's resources. There are seniors who complain publicly about having to contribute to the education and general well-being of other people's children, after they have raised their own. It is also painfully obvious in some communications from younger friends and former co-workers -- who talk angrily (or wistfully) about how nice it must be to be retired and how upset they are that this phase of life may be profoundly different when they're 67, 70 or beyond.  And there are media pundits on all sides talking about generational wars. Media, left, right and in between, fan these generational fires because conflict sells newspapers, magazines and advertising space. These media-fanned tensions can also obscure the realities and challenges we all face -- and need to address together.

We need to sit back and take a collective deep breath. We need to get a grip. And then we must remember how much we all depend on each other -- and on past generations and those yet to come.

Seniors who say "I've got mine!" -- whether this is Social Security or a pension or the fact that their children and maybe even grandchildren have their educations secured -- need to reflect on the reality that having yours is not enough. Looking at the matter pragmatically, your future security depends not only on your own prudence, foresight and luck in life. It also depends on having educated, functional younger generations who will pay taxes and provide goods and services.  This means that younger generations need good food, good medical care and good educational opportunities.  We may have worked to finance our own college educations (more possible before the current explosion of college costs) and those of our children.  But other generations -- from our parents to countless strangers -- also worked and paid taxes to help educate us throughout our years in school.  We paid Social Security taxes for 30 or 40 years or more of employment to support current retirees and to secure our futures. And younger workers, in turn, will do the same.  How can we not contribute to the resources needed to educate them and help them to prepare for the challenges of the future?

Younger generations who bemoan the sheer numbers and needs of Baby Boomers and other senior generations  may be overlooking contributions older generations are making to your lives even as you rant about their greed.  Many young graduates live with parents far longer than previous generations as they struggle to get a foothold in today's job market.  Some recent studies show that younger adults are much more likely to ask for financial help from their parents or grandparents than the older generations are to request help from the young.  So it may be prudent to think twice about advocating for slashing or privatizing Social Security or Medicare -- or you may find yourself needing to contribute to the support of elderly parents or grandparents even as you struggle to support yourself and a growing young family.

Some of the tensions seem to be rooted in stereotypes: greedy golfing geezers taking resources away from younger generations struggling to survive and younger people without the work ethic or drive necessary to make their way in the world.

The trend in retirement these days is less about endless vacations and days filled with golf than it is about older people working part-time or launching new careers or making a major difference as volunteers in schools, hospitals, charities and causes. Most seniors are not independently wealthy and the majority do depend heavily on Social Security benefits.  Most aren't trying to live lavishly, but to maintain their independence and not burden their children.  And some seniors make major sacrifices to help their children.  For example,  Renee, a former co-worker of mine, took a lifelong, major cut in her retirement benefits to leave her job several years earlier than she had planned because her young married daughter had a baby and couldn't afford to stop working or to pay for good daycare.  Renee is now providing unpaid daily loving care for her granddaughter. Despite the financial sacrifices this has entailed for her, she sees it as a wonderful opportunity to nurture her family's newest generation and to help her daughter.

And younger people bring so much to the daily lives of their elders.  It's a pleasure to mentor or encourage a younger person. There are so many talented, hard-working younger people who simply need a chance to show what they can do.  It's a joy to share perspectives and grow through being open to each other's wisdom and expertise.  Yes, the young have much to teach us.  Our children and grandchildren have an understanding and ease with emerging technology that we will never have. (My 16-month old niece Maggie can navigate through an iPAD with lightening speed as I watch in awe.) Need help setting up a new computer system? Getting on Facebook? Learning to Twitter?  Chances are,  someone younger will be there to help.  Sometimes they challenge us.  My younger friend Donnell insists on texting me rather than resorting to "old-fashioned" email -- as part of a goal he has to drag me into the technology of the 21st century.  Well beyond technology,  younger and older generations have differing life experiences, different strengths and weaknesses. But these differences can work wonderfully when shared in positive ways to enrich all our lives.

The fact is, we all need each other. We all need support, compassion and understanding. These needs are quite independent of our political beliefs, our ethnicity, or our ages. Instead of focusing on our differences -- and allowing media to fan the fires of conflict between us -- we need to work together to find creative, compassionate solutions to the very real social and economic challenges we face today.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Urge to Run Away

Some years ago, I picked up the phone to hear a friend I'll call Gina sobbing on the other end.

"I want to run away!" she cried. "My two daughters just had a screaming, 15 minute fight over a 65 cent packet of barrettes. I'm so done with this! I want to take a week off from being a mom! Can I fly out and stay with you? Just be totally irresponsible for a week?"

How could I refuse? We had a wonderfully irresponsible week together -- lazing around the community pool, strolling on the beach, laughing and telling stories. It became an annual tradition: Gina's break from the demands of motherhood.  Her yearly escapes ended only when her daughters grew up -- morphing into lovely women whose company she treasured. Once the grandchildren came, there was no chance of luring her away again.

And yet, the urge to run happens to many people in a number of circumstances.  You may feel like running -- for even a few minutes -- when the evening noise pollution with the kids, the dog, music and t.v. converge into a mind-shattering cacophony. You may feel like yelling "I'm done!" and stomping out the door when your teenager is impossible.  You may feel like running when your aging parent overwhelms you with expectations, demands and criticism.  You may fantasize about a quick escape when you realize that you're so busy meeting others' needs, you haven't done anything for yourself in months or years. You may start looking for a temporary exit when, in retirement, you and your husband find yourselves together all the time, every day, for the first time in your marriage.

What does the urge to run mean? It is a signal that you're exhausted, depleted and desperate for some kind of respite. How can you give yourself a respite if you don't have the time, the means or the opportunity to flee for a significant chunk of time?

Take mini-escapes right where you are:  Arrange with your family for you to take a time out -- perhaps for half an hour after dinner. Take a cup of herbal tea to the patio or the privacy of your room. Plug in your iPOD to music that pleases you.  Practice mindful meditation -- a half hour of relaxation and concentrating with your breathing, letting your tension melt away. 

One couple I know who had six pre-teen and teenage kids had a half-hour coffee break every evening on the patio with no kids allowed. They set a timer in the kitchen and all the kids knew that, short of the house burning down, their parents were off-limits until the chime went off. Once established, this time-out worked well for this busy couple -- and their kids.

Realize that self-care can help you to care better for others.  This is particularly true when you have unrelenting demands as the caregiver for an aging parent or as the parent of a special needs child. Make arrangements with a spouse, family member or close friend or professional respite care to free you up to have some time just for you. It isn't selfish to want this. It's normal -- and necessary for you to have some time to relax and replenish the energy it takes to care for your loved one.

Make regular time apart a positive for you -- and your relationships.  In our new community, we often see newly retired couples struggle with constant togetherness.  While some, like Bob and me, welcome time together after so many years of juggling work responsibilities, others find themselves in turf wars. One woman I know who was always a homemaker chafes under her husband's constant suggestions about how she might do her housework more efficiently and at his expectations for three formal mealtimes in a lock-stop daily schedule. "I'm not used to having him home all the time," she says. "I used to have a life. Now I don't." What seems to work for many people is a compromise - coordinating time apart to pursue individual interests.  Our neighbors Larry and Louise -- another two-career couple only recently retired who treasure their time together -- have scheduled Monday afternoons for separate interests. Louise heads to the ceramics workshop while Larry comes over for a guitar lesson from Bob.
Another couple, Bill and Susan, schedule his golf and her gym workouts at the same time.  

During a stressful time of life, make time for little pleasures.  This may mean a date night out for you and your spouse. It may mean an evening with girlfriends while he watches the kids.  It may mean a hot bath, healthy food, an exercise routine, a time set aside to smell the roses, cuddle with the cat or dog, whatever pleases you.  Taking time for yourself and/or your marriage is critical, especially during difficult times. It may be as brief as a dinner out or as long as a weekend or more away. When you're feeling overwhelmed and that you're losing touch with you or your spouse, you absolutely need to make the time to replenish your energies and your relationship in order to gather strength for the next challenge.

It's not selfish. It doesn't make you a bad parent, spouse or daughter.  Running away -- for a few minutes or a week -- may be just what you need to survive and even thrive through the inevitable challenges that life can bring.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Making the Most of Each Day

A man named Stuart Bridges ( died recently in Phoenix. A formerly active, successful man, he spent the last few years of his life bedridden with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Laurie Roberts, an Arizona Republic newspaper columnist,  followed him through the course of the disease -- from his initial diagnosis when he felt all the joy in his life was in the past to weeks before his December 13 death when he told Ms. Roberts that he still felt joy in life. Perhaps it was the smile of a family member or friend or reading kind words sent from a friend or stranger or feeling a tender touch, hearing the sound of rain or seeing the sunlight of a new day. As his world became smaller and more confined, Stuart Bridges rejoiced in the small blessings of his life.

In our more expansive, healthy lives what are the blessings we can count every day? Everything around us, everyone we meet, every experience we have can be a blessing.

What are yours today?

I feel blessed for a sunny and warm Arizona day. For the kindness of neighbors and our acceptance of each other, eccentricities, pains and quirks included. I feel blessed with the unconditional love of three cats whose ability to soothe and delight never wavers. I feel blessed by friendships -- old and new and new/old, some friends who were dear decades ago, in what feels like another lifetime, who have appeared again recently to bring joy to my life. I feel blessed for the chance to exercise and to build a healthier body. I feel blessed by family whose love is expressed in so many different ways, each treasured.  I feel blessed with old memories and new experiences, to be older, rather than younger, with a lifetime of adventures -- and more to come.

It's so easy to overlook our blessings, to accept them as our due, and to focus instead on the negative: that persistant ache or pain, the waning physical abilities despite our best efforts, so many losses that we experience at this stage of life. The firm, sleak beauty of our youth is elusive now. Our mates age along with us and we fear, in whispered tones or private anguish, losing them. Our health, impacted by genetic and lifestyle factors, may never be perfect again. But simply being alive and living with joy and gratitude is a blessing. My physical heart may be problematic, but the heart that is my essence still sings.

As well as counting our blessings, we can give generously to others each day. Did you smile at someone today? Extend a hand, a kind word? Did you try to brighten another's day?

Living fully with love can overcome so many of life's limitations.  Isabella was a dear friend from college with whom I lost contact after she went into the Peace Corps and then enjoyed a career in journalism and diplomacy that took her around the world. We were reunited online by Marcia, another long-lost dear college friend, and enjoyed renewing our friendship through emails and dreams of a friends' reunion. I was stunned to read her husband's post-Christmas note two years ago, telling me that Isabella had died of ALS, that the disease had taken a rapid course with her so that at least she didn't suffer long. As her life, like that of Stuart Bridges, became ever more limited, Isabella still communicated only joy -- in her life adventures, in her beautiful and talented young daughter, in the unwavering love and support of her husband, in nurturing friendships.

We're all living with limits, all with the relentless march of time. But still, we can choose joy in the simple and the most important aspects of our lives to make every moment a blessing.