Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When Adult Children Seek to Reverse Roles

During our 45th reunion at Northwestern University last weekend, I talked for a long time with a dear friend and classmate about a recent upheaval in her life. After many years of keeping her anger and sadness and disappointment largely unexpressed, she finally exploded with anger at her husband, yelling at him for the first time in their 38 years of marriage. When word of this reached their two children, both rushed to the house to do what they described as an "intervention".

She shook his head in disbelief at the thought that these adult children felt the need and the right to intervene in a marital dispute between their parents. "The children were suddenly telling me how to behave, what to do and what to say," she said. "They were so eager to keep the status quo, even though they live independently and have their own lives and families. They were so angry at me for rocking the boat."

As we talked, we agreed that it might help to reframe her adult children's anger and interference as love and concern -- for both parents, for the stability of the family, for themselves as they struggle with a variety of feelings about possible family changes. We also agreed that while it's important to see the love and concern behind their angry words, it was also vital to pay attention to her own inner voice telling her that her life needed to change.

Sometimes interventions from adult children can bring about good, healthy, necessary changes.

My neighbor Yvette and her husband were avid RV-ers for some years after selling their New Jersey home. About five years ago, they were on their way to visit their adult daughter in Arizona when Yvette's husband had a stroke as they were approaching Tucson and died in a hospital there a few days later. After much discussion, some of it heated and tearful, Yvette's daughter convinced her to give up life on the road and buy a house in this community. She sold the RV, invited her elderly mother Rita to move in with her and settled into this community, She has been surprised at how right the decision -- one she would never have considered except for her daughter's urging -- has been for her.  While she expected that she would be taking care of her mother, the situation has taken another turn lately: Yvette has a life-threatening illness and her mother, who is healthy and strong at 92, is there, along with Yvette's daughter, to care for her.

Another neighbor whose failing eyesight and questionable judgment have made him a menace on the road lately has been fielding comments, pleas, and directives from his adult children to relinquish his car  keys. While his reactions have ranged from anger to denial, he is slowly coming to accept the fact that he shouldn't be driving. "I should probably lose my license because I really can't see," he said recently. "And I know the kids aren't trying to give me a hard time. They just want their parents around for awhile longer. I had an accident not long ago. No one was hurt. But it was my fault because I couldn't see. The kids are right. I hate to admit it. I hate to give up driving. But they're right."

It can be a shock to find oneself on the receiving end of adult child concern.

My long-time friend Maurice spent many years caring for a difficult, demanding mother who played havoc with his romantic relationships. But his is a culture that expects children to care for aging parents with no professional interventions. "She gave me life and nurtured me when I was young and helpless," he would tell me as I rolled my eyes in twenty-something angst when we were dating many years ago. "What am I supposed to do? Our culture doesn't do retirement or nursing homes. We embrace our parents. We don't throw them away like trash." And I would always get tears in my eyes when he would say that, suddenly ashamed of my own impatience with her and admiring his dedication.

Maurice, who never married, took loving care of his mother until she died last year at 104. Now he is amused and a bit surprised to be the object of adult child care and concern. When I called him to congratulate him on his 82nd birthday recently, he told me that he was going for a long visit with his beloved niece Rachel in San Francisco. "She takes wonderful care of her old uncle," he told me with a gentle chuckle. "I have my own room in her house. I think it's there -- ready and waiting -- for the time I can't care for myself independently. It's scary to think that that time could be near. But it's also immensely reassuring that there is a younger person who loves me and cares."

It can be a delicate balance -- this loving and caring and beginnings of role reversal. We've seen it as our own parents have aged and passed away. We, as adult children, have lived the concern, the frustration, the juggling of caregiving duties with our busy lives, the loving desire that they be safe and happy, the grief at losing them in a sad variety of ways. Some have gone quickly of heart attacks, unable to say a final "Goodbye" as my parents did. Others have experienced the heartbreak of the slow loss of a parent with dementia. We have witnessed their denial, their raging, their grudging acceptance of new limitations and losses.

And now, slowly but surely, it is starting to be our turn.

It can be disconcerting to see the next generation -- so soon -- poised to reverse roles with us. It can feel invasive, even ridiculous to be experiencing interventions, directives and even scoldings from our children. It hurts to even imagine letting go of some of our adult freedoms and to admit to that we're beginning to get frail in some ways, that our days of full independence may be numbered.

And yet it's also reassuring to know that our adult children are slowly stepping in, ready and willing to help.

As the transition starts, it's important to see the love behind the concerns and directives of our adult children.

It's important to set boundaries and limits when they go too far, too soon. We can thank them for caring while insisting that, right now, we are perfectly capable of handling certain things ourselves and admitting that there will come a time when that is not the case.

And we can do our adult children a great favor by having legal paperwork -- trusts, wills, power of attorney, end of life and healthcare directives -- as well as written wishes for end of life and funeral plans, locations and numbers of bank and investment accounts -- ready and in a place the children know to find them.

It is also important to pay attention -- even when it hurts -- to our frailties and to hear our children's concerns and accept their help in letting go.

Visiting with another dear college friend during and after our 45th reunion in Chicago last weekend, I listened as he told me  that he and his wife of 44 years are divorcing and that he is building a new life for himself alone with a mixture of sadness and anticipation.

While they may be choosing separate paths now, he and his wife spent years parenting four wonderful children, all now adults. And all are now poised to comfort and to embrace them both with love and concern. There are no villains in this family scenario, only people who for so many years did the very best they could. And that best was outstanding.

I remember seeing that love in the Christmas card pictures I received of the children over so many years. Their faces beaming at a camera held by him or his wife, the way they cuddled each other, spoke volumes about the love in their home.

And the love is wonderfully evident in the way these children -- now grown and on their own -- are caring for their parents during this family upheaval. They are planning for holidays filled with love and joy as they divide themselves up to include their parents.

While I was visiting my friend, he got an email message from one adult daughter, telling him how much she loves him and how much she's looking forward to him coming to spend Thanksgiving with her and her family. And another daughter calls him daily, just to express love and to check on his day, his mood, his general well-being.

Those sweet little girls in the Christmas card pictures have become these loving young women, bringing true comfort and joy to their newly-parted parents, both of whom they love so much.

What a fascinating time in life: to see the beginnings of our being nurtured by those we once nurtured, to have life coming full circle with our caregivers waiting so visibly in the wings.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Can I Hear You Now?

I might not have heard him word for word, but I could hear the edge in my husband Bob's voice this summer as he struggled to convince me to get medical help for my increasingly noticeable hearing loss.

It has become a major issue in the last few months, but, truth be told, I've struggled to hear in my left ear for some years.

My first memory of hearing loss was one of panic. I was hooked to a live feed for The Today Show. While I usually did these shows in the studio in New York, I was a last minute addition on this particular day -- called to be the voice of reason between a minister and a television producer in a heated discussion of the influence of television on teen violence, particularly school shootings. I sat alone, except for the camera operator, at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time in the NBC studios in Burbank. I was staring into the camera, with no visible monitor, linked to Matt Lauer only with an earpiece in my left ear.

The interview was going fine -- though it was a little hard to hear him -- when I suddenly realized that I couldn't hear his last question at all. Frantically, I improvised and made a point that was, thankfully, on target with the conversation. My demeanor remained calm. But inside, I was shaken by the fact that, for a moment, I couldn't hear or understand -- on live television.

Then, during the next few years, answering the phone gradually became a challenge if I put the receiver to my left ear. Not to worry. I just talked on the phone using my right ear.

Later, there were jokes about not hearing well when someone spoke to me on my left side or about misunderstanding a comment or not hearing a greeting.

Recently, the hearing loss has been much more pronounced. Without always realizing I'm doing it, I've been guessing at what others were saying and responding accordingly. I've had some strange looks from friends and neighbors and increasingly urgent pleas from my husband to get my hearing tested.

Then one day we read a newspaper article about untreated hearing loss possibly leading to cognitive deficits. Suddenly frightened, I wondered if I might be losing my mind as well as my hearing.

I rushed to my doctor. After a few minutes of conversation, she smiled. "Well, I'd say you're in great shape cognitively," she said at last. "But you do appear to have some hearing loss. Did you notice that I've had to repeat myself several times here?"

I hadn't noticed.

She referred me to an audiologist. Several hours and many tests later, the verdict was in: I had a severe hearing loss in the left ear and a moderate hearing loss in my right ear. "You've been compensating with your right ear for a long time," the audiologist told me cheerfully. "But now that you're losing your hearing in your good ear, the overall loss is so much more noticeable."

A subsequent MRI of my brain and a CT scan of my temporal bones revealed no tumors but a relatively rare inner ear condition called superior semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome that is involves an abnormally thin or even absence of a temporal bone. It can lead not only to hearing loss but also to balance problems.

After an ear specialist recommended hearing aids for both ears, the audiologist began fitting me with a pair deemed appropriate for my type of hearing loss.

Bob asked her the price. I couldn't hear her reply. So I guessed. "Did she say two hearing aids would cost $1,000?" I asked Bob quietly.  He shook his head and leaned in to my right ear.

"$8,000 for both," he said.

For a moment, I was more stunned by the price -- not covered by Medicare -- than I was by my need for the hearing aids.

I've had them for two weeks now. They're barely detectable and they do help. The proof of their necessity came at a birthday party last week.

I was eager to try them out at my neighbor Wally's 75th birthday party in a crowded, noisy restaurant. Background noise has played havoc with my being able to follow conversations in the past year.

I remembered the excruciating embarrassment of not understanding or following conversations at a political rally I attended with my friends Tom and Ruth a few months ago.

I remembered withdrawing during large social events at the community center and starting to avoid them altogether because I couldn't understand a word being said.

This time would be different.

As I walked into the restaurant, I heard a series of beeps. Oh, no! My hearing aid batteries were low! But the aids were still working. I sat down at the table, confident that I would be able to follow the conversation.

I watched Wally enjoying time with his two wonderful adult children -- beautiful daughter Kathleen, a business executive, and son Paul who, besides being charming and successful, has been profoundly deaf since birth. I watched with warm wonder as Wally spoke aloud and also signed for his son -- and as Paul, Kathleen and her husband Mike, signed back and forth with ease and delight.

Then Wally asked me a question just as I heard the musical sign-off of my hearing aid batteries. Still confident, I answered enthusiastically and at length. When I had finished, smiling with satisfaction, Wally's wife Phyllis, who was sitting beside me, leaned over and said loudly into my right ear: "That's all very interesting, Kathy. But that's not what he asked you."

My cheeks burned. I laughed awkwardly and made a joke about needing to learn sign language, too.

But it was a major wake-up call: I've had to accept the fact that I really do have a major hearing loss and those hearing aids are as vital to me now as my glasses.

It's another landmark in the losses of aging.

 I remember my horror some years ago when my college friend Jane told me she was now wearing bifocals -- at the age of 42! And how much older I felt, at 47, when I got reading glasses for the first time. Now I wear glasses all the time.

Now this.

Part of me is grateful that hearing aids exist and that, despite my initial shock at the price, we could afford to pay for them.

And part of me is mourning the diminishment of yet another valued sense and feeling just a bit more elderly as I put them over and into my ears each morning.

O.K. I said it. I'm elderly. But I still feel so vividly alive. My vision and hearing may need some assistance, but reading for hours or gazing with wonder at the endless vistas of Arizona skies or at a loved one's face or listening with pleasure to favorite music or funny podcasts, the soft purr of a kitten,  the stillness of a desert night or the voice of someone dear are all still treasured moments in my daily life.

Friday, October 19, 2012

When Does the Blame Stop?

There was yet another painful comment the other day for the post "Finding the Balance" from the mother of two adult children saying that after her daughters' college and weddings were finished and paid for, she had become persona non grata with the kids who began to blame her for their own current difficulties -- as in "You and Dad fought all the time I was growing up and it messed me up!"

It seems that some adult children, faced with undeniably difficult challenges in launching their careers and independent lives, are angry and at a loss -- and may blame their parents in a variety of ways. Maybe they blame them for not preparing them for the rigors of adult life, for praising them to the skies and raising them to believe that anything was possible. Maybe they blame them for lagging self-confidence or for not encouraging them more in one direction instead of another.  And some may blame parents for trauma and torment that continues to cripple them as they try to take on the world.

Whatever the basis for the blame visited upon parents, all of these adult children have a choice. They can continue to be miserable, underachieving, angry and outraged. Or they can decide to make their own happiness.

These adult children need to reach a point in life -- sooner rather than later -- where they take an active role in shaping their own lives and stop the blame game.

In all of our lives, there comes a decision point: am I going to be unhappy and held back in life because of what my parents did or didn't do? Or am I going to make my life my own, take responsibility for my own happiness and achievements and mistakes?

Taking ownership of your own life and destiny can free you in so many ways, even from the sadness and terror of a tortured childhood.

I was talking with my brother Mike on the phone the other day about the strangely positive aspects of our horrific upbringing.

"Sibling rivalry didn't happen," he said. "What we were facing from Father tended to unite rather than divide us."

And, we agreed, the hideousness of life at home was like a catapult to our ambitions and inclination to independence. Despite my shyness and fear, I chose a college nearly two thousand miles away from home -- and it was absolutely the best choice I could have made. Mike had left our California home to move in with our maternal grandmother in Kansas while still in high school. My sister Tai ran away from home when she was 17 and never returned. All of us were haunted by the specter of our unemployed, violent, pill-popping, alcoholic father. So very much on our own -- working, with scholarships and loans and teaching assistantships -- we acquired a variety of degrees and marketable skills in order to get and stay employed and solvent. And, mindful of his addictions, we have been cautious about using alcohol and other substances.

We've worked hard to build happy, productive lives and mutually loving and respectful relationships. We've always been clear what we don't want and the direction of our lives has been in living quite different lives than we lived and saw in our family of origin.

Making your life your own means not blaming others for misfortunes or setbacks, not expecting others to respond the way you might wish. It isn't easy. But it can be empowering. And the chances to create our lives and our own happiness happen on a daily basis.

Every day we face challenges and choices about personal responsibility. It's humbling to be reminded that just when you think you have all of this mastered, something happens that shows how much more there is to learn.

Recently, my husband Bob and I had a briefly bitter conflict with a neighbor couple. In short, we've had a long-time reciprocal cat care agreement with these neighbors, carefully balancing each other's travel plans to accommodate the other. We cared for their cat for 7 weeks this summer and they had agreed to care for ours during our 2 week Maui vacation in September.

It fell apart 36 hours before our departure for Maui when news reached us from another neighbor that our neighbor/cat-sitters planned to take another vacation of their own right in the middle of ours. We were the last to know. And when I called to inquire about their plans, the response was "Oh, yeah. We meant to call you. You'll have to find someone else to take care of your cats while we're away."

What? When were they planning to tell us??

Under stress and scrambling, we found a wonderful professional pet-sitter for our cats. It cost us an unbudgeted $400, but the peace of mind, at this point, was worth it. Our friend Kim also offered to take in our mail and play with the cats while we were gone. So our animals were well cared for in our absence. But our continuing feelings of disappointment and anger toward our original cat sitters was ignited further by their total lack of understanding about why we might be unhappy with them. The wife wrote an adamant email that they were not to blame in any way and that we needed to take responsibility for our own problems. The husband insisted that he had visited our cats to play with them every day he was home and didn't understand, then, why we were upset.  For several days, a chilly stand-off persisted.

Finally, our friend Theo put the situation in perspective. He quietly took Bob's hand and said "Bob, what they did was selfish and thoughtless and it's a shame that they don't realize it or at least empathize with your pain here. But you have to live next door to them for a long time. I don't think you want to live with this kind of tension. So make peace. Apologize for yelling at them on the phone. Do it for you, not for them. Tap your inner Buddha and do the right thing."

Bob thought about it and picked up the phone. On the other end, our male neighbor was friendly, but still puzzled. "You know," he said. "Every day we were home, we came over to visit your cats. I still don't understand why you are so upset."

Biting his tongue, Bob said "Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree on this. It's over and done with. And we'll just go on..."

Hours later, this neighbor dropped by our house after taking his wife to the airport to go visit her mother in Oregon. It was like old times -- sort of. We talked of everything but what had stood between us. And as our neighbor sat there, our kitten Hamish ran into the room and onto his lap, purring loudly. Maggie was right behind him, rubbing against our neighbor's legs.

An angry part of myself, not wanting to let go, silently cursed the kitties for their obvious affection -- "Hey, you little traitors, get back under the bed where you belong!" -- but it was undeniable that he had built a bond with them, including Hammie, who had seen little of him before our departure.

It was a lesson in letting go, in humility and in acceptance.

Theo is right. There are times when we have to give up our righteous view of what should have been and make an alliance with what is. There are times when being the first to apologize -- even when that seems outrageous -- is the right thing to do. There are times when we have to accept another's offering as good enough even when we think it falls way short.

In many ways, the process has been similar to resolving issues from our parents: for our own inner peace, we've had to look past what went wrong and focus more on what went right. Our parents did the best they could at the time. Our neighbors did the best they could at the time. Even if we think that their choices and efforts should have been far different, that reality is not ours to decide.

We do this for us, not for them.

What matters in this instance is that our beloved cats are alive and well and feeling loved by all around them.

What matters, in the long run, is not what happened in our homes of origin or our neighborhoods of the present, but how we respond to and learn from these experiences.

What matters, on a daily basis, is making the decision to be at peace with what is and to make our own happiness.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Making Marriage Work in Retirement

He approached me quietly at the gym not long ago. His voice was urgent and barely above a whisper. "I've got an idea for something you should write in your blog," he said, glancing over his shoulder and leaning in to keep the conversation just between us.

"Write something about making marriage work in retirement."

And then he was gone.

It's a rich topic. Many couples dream about retirement for years and yet find the reality can bring unexpected challenges to marriages that have weathered many previous life events.

But some of the challenges of aging and retirement are unique.

  • There is the reality of being in a long marriage. There may be some bitter feelings scattered through the very real joy that a long marriage can bring: you have the pleasure of shared experiences and of knowing and understanding each other well, but you can also harbor old anger and resentment.
  •  There are the losses and challenges of retiring:  For many, there is the loss of a career (and those who did not choose to leave their jobs voluntarily can feel especially poignant feelings of loss). There is the quest for new ways to make life meaningful. There are changing or challenging roles within the home. How does an executive who had everyone at work doing for him segue into a new life at home? How does a woman for whom the home was her domain react to sharing her time and space full-time? How do two-career couples whose frantic schedules grind to a halt in retirement come to terms with big stretches of time alone together? And how does a couple work out their differences when one of them is embracing the freedom of retirement while the other is grieving the loss of his or her career?
  • There is the pervasive possibility of loss: It's always there and we see it, feel it, as we age and retire. We face the prospect, at some point, of losing not only each other, but also our strength and health and vitality. And we face the loss of some dreams with those new limitations. It isn't just a matter of not having that chance to be a young prodigy, but also the opportunity to pursue a new career or do a lot of traveling as energy and financial resources diminish. And sometimes we grieve these losses -- both present and future -- together and sometimes they may come between us as one partner becomes frail while the other is still vigorous.
  •  There is new isolation. Especially if you move to a new place, you may find yourselves relying more on each other as you settle in and slowly build new support systems. Even you have decided to age in place, there is still that sense of the world speeding by, of children and grandchildren busy with own lives at a time when you have more time than ever to enjoy being with them.
  • There is increased togetherness: While this can be wonderful, a dream come true, it can also be a challenge when all the time you once enjoyed with co-workers and friends has now become time for the two of you together. This new togetherness can be a decidedly mixed bag: it can delight and can also grate on the nerves. Especially if you have also decided to downsize your home during retirement, you may find yourself feeling more than a little couple's claustrophobia.
There are no easy answers or quick solutions to these marriage-in-retirement issues. However, there are some ideas to ponder as you work through some of the rough spots that may come up in your marriage at this new phase of life.

1. Emphasize the positive and make a decision to resolve old anger or let it go.  Some couples find themselves in marriage counseling for the first time after retirement and quite often, it is due to residual hurt and anger that surface during the stress of moving on to a new phase of life.

One couple I know have old issues around the husband's constant travel and frequent relocations during the working and child-raising phase of their marriage.  Due to his business travel, the husband was loving, but largely checked in on his wife and kids for years, not having much significant daily involvement in their lives. And the family's frequent relocations meant that the kids were constantly (and sometimes unhappily) adjusting to new schools and that the wife never had a chance to establish her own career. When they were making a decision about retirement relocation, the wife insisted that "I get to choose this because I've never had a chance to choose anything else!" And she has a short fuse when she hears him complaining about the stresses of adjusting to a new place.

A short course of couples counseling helped them to empathize more with each other -- she with his sense of loss over the end of his long career and difficulty adjusting to life at home in a different place and he with her long-time frustration in feeling that she didn't have a voice in their life choices as she functioned as a married single mom and mourned the career she never had. Both have encouraged each other in new pursuits: he as a community volunteer and she as a fitness instructor at a local gym. And they report that they are happier than they have ever been in their new life.

Some marriages strain a bit as the partners age and become more themselves than ever before. I see it daily. People who are selfish and self-centered become more so. People who are warm and gregarious glow through their later years. And those of us with an eclectic mixture of traits might become a bit more annoying or endearing depending on the various traits. Packrats may become hoarders. Those of us who love to tell stories may repeat ourselves more often than we would like. These and other possibilities may keep our partners on edge.

As well as making an attempt to reign in behavior that threatens to drive a spouse crazy (my personal project is to be more circumspect about political ranting -- my liberal-Democrat-lone-voice crying-in-the desert-of-a-very-conservative Republican state -- that can drive my husband, a moderately conservative independent voter, wild with frustration), it can also help to focus on a spouse's positive aspects when his or her other traits are driving you nuts. When your spouse isn't being a grump or a wild-eyed political fanatic, he or she may be wonderfully kind and supportive, have a great sense of humor or simply be all around good company. Focusing on the positive can get a couple over a lot of rough spots.

And, at this stage, perhaps one of the greatest positives and daily blessings is that you still have each other.

2. Try to understand each other's losses and struggles for meaning. These are highly individual. And they come up when least expected. Don't ever diminish or demean a spouse's mourning the past or trying to reframe the future.

Besides the former corporate executives struggling with lost power and prestige, there are men and women who simply miss aspects of their working lives even as they embrace retirement.

For example, I found myself having such a moment while spending an hour in a psychiatrist's waiting room recently while my husband had a consultation about medication for his epilepsy-related depression. I watched as patients came into the waiting room and the mental health professionals -- psychiatrist, psychologist, marriage family therapist -- welcomed them into their offices. And I felt a twinge of sadness, remembering how very much I enjoyed seeing patients and working with them through an incredible variety of life crises. There are several reasons why I'm choosing not to practice in Arizona (though my California license remains valid). One is that Arizona has, essentially, no license reciprocity and I would have to go through a 1500 hour internship and take a licensing exam as if I were just out of school in order to practice. No thanks. The second and most compelling reason is that, at this stage of my life after many years of working multiple jobs at a time, I want to devote myself to my writing -- and to good health, family and good friends.  But there are moments -- like this one in the doctor's office -- when my heart aches for a moment about leaving a cherished part of my work life behind.

As we drove home, I expressed my sadness and my husband hit just the right note of empathy -- validating my sadness as well as my joy at having a chance to spend more time writing and accepting my bittersweet feelings for what they were -- without feeling he had to come up with a solution or criticizing me for longing for a career I quite deliberately chose to give up.

I see spouses in this active adult community spar over their losses and longings. One wife complains that her husband "just doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's retired. He watches t.v. or just sits doing nothing. Or he tells me how to do housework but doesn't move off his rear end to help." If she could recognize the mourning and depression behind his inertia, she might be able to offer more emotional support -- as well as eliciting some help around the house. Planning fun things to do together to break out of the inertia or encouraging new interests and pursuits can go a long way in restoring marital peace and harmony.

3. Make peace with the reality of physical loss and the challenges that entails.  There are so many things we long to do in retirement, some things postponed until now. But, at this stage of life, so much can happen physically to alter the scenario of active adventures while seeing the world. Sometimes one spouse is still robust while another becomes frail. And there can be resentment and frustration as well as devotion. Resolving these issues can take a lot of compassion and generosity from both spouses.

Some neighbors of ours, both of whom love travel and who had hoped to do much more of it, have come to the conclusion that their traveling days are largely over. The husband has mobility and balance problems that make it impossible for him to explore destinations, even on a cruise. And the wife is about to start kidney dialysis, which will limit the timing and locations of any future trips. They agree that they have many lovely memories of travel and are content now to be home with each other.

Another couple -- where the husband is active and the wife is increasingly frail -- has resolved matters in a different way. The husband has joined the community hiking club which takes day trips as well as overnight hiking adventures while the wife stays home, content with various, less strenuous community activities.

It can help to encourage each other to do what is possible and to be compassionate with each other about what isn't possible any more.

4. Find new ways to connect to children, grandchildren and extended family.  The desire to stay close to kin can play itself out in relationship conflicts.

I see this in couples who have moved away from kids and grandkids -- and one spouse grieves the distance while the other spouse celebrates the fact that loved ones are farther away now. I see this in couples who have pulled up roots to move closer to the younger generation, only to find that their kids are so busy with working and child-rearing that visiting time is limited.

While some neighbors have made compromises that please both spouses like periodic trips back to see the kids or a shared family vacations, others are finding new joy through technology. Skype and Facetime are big hits in this community as a way to have face-to-face visits across the miles with those they love most. While one may miss hugs, the chance to have a virtual visit in real time can help fill the gap. Now that my brother and his family are returning to live in Thailand for the foreseeable future, I have enjoyed -- and look forward to many more -- virtual visits. The last time we talked, I showed my brother the waves rolling to shore at Napili Bay in Maui and he showed me the skyline of Bangkok from their 37th story condo in the middle of the city. And I got to see his daughter Maggie -- waking up and a bit cranky before she started smiling -- in very real time.

Some retired couples come to realize that family plans must be revised. One very dear friend of mine has a lovely guest room in her beach condo that I have enjoyed quite a few times. However, her kids, both of whom live in different states and who are busy with careers and growing children, have spent much less time there than she had hoped. As we talked over holiday plans recently, she told me that she had come to the conclusion that if they want to see the kids and the grands, she and her disabled husband will have to go to them. It's something her husband has been wanting to do for some time while she has held off, daunted by the physical logistics.

Now she is changing her mind."While it's physically easier for them to travel than it is for us, I'm increasingly aware of the fact that we have the time to visit them while getting away is just so hard for them," she told me recently. "So while it's still possible -- if challenging -- for us to travel, we're going to go to them rather than continuing to expect them to come to us."

5. Create space -- in time and location -- to decrease irritability.  Especially for couples who have not spent a lot of time day to day together, retirement can be a shock. It can be particularly difficult if they have relocated away from family and old friends and are suddenly more dependent on each other. This increased familiarity can mean new closeness or, at times, it can truly breed contempt.

"When we realized that we were fighting more just to create some comfortable emotional space, we decided to find a less stressful way to do that," a college friend of mine confided not long ago. "We fixed up the small basement of our townhouse to make it a retreat for one of us to use when we need time apart. So far, so good!"

My husband and I love spending time together, but were mindful of the fact that we both need considerable solitude as well as togetherness. Our small, 1300 square foot house in California was great for us when we were working and commuting long hours and saw each other mostly on weekends. While many couples downsize their living quarters in retirement, we went in the other direction: buying a new, less expensive home in Arizona that has nearly twice the square footage of our previous home. The special spaces for Bob's art and music, my writing, our prodigious reading have led to much contentment and calm in our retirement.

Other couples I know create space in time -- enjoying time away with special friends or activities as well as time together. Paying attention to your need to take time for yourself or time out with a friend can help rather than hurt your marriage.

How you make marriage work in retirement is very much like how you make retirement work for you: it takes co-operation and planning and an open mind for the myriad of possibilities. While this profound life change can be a challenge, it can also be a chance to celebrate your life together -- and to rejoice in the fact that you still have each other.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Real Shocker


The banner headline posted on the cover of the latest "National Enquirer" at the supermarket check-stand today was framed by pictures of famous women -- those who had and had not had -- plastic surgery.

On the left side of the cover were photos of Katie Couric, Barbara Eden and Connie Francis without make-up, looking more or less their chronological ages, which ranged from 55 for Katie Couric to seventy-something for Barbara Eden and Connie Francis. I looked at their pictures and what I saw were normal, attractive women in various stages of (more or less) natural aging.

Why is that a shocker?

Why are women -- famous and otherwise -- criticized or, worse, penalized for looking their age?

When I see my friends -- long-time and new -- I see that they're not young. But I see the signs of lives well lived, of loving, of building character through the years. I see kindness and sadness and joy. I see a wealth of lifetime experiences in the faces of my friends.

I see that in my husband Bob, too. We met when I was 30 and he 31.  I see the young Bob as well as the older, wiser and more experienced Bob when I look in his face. I see the intelligence he has always had as well as the wisdom and compassion he has grown into through the years.

When I look in the mirror, I do see the extra weight, the wrinkles, the white hair.

I also see my mother's face. Who thought I would ever grow to resemble my mother? It's a surprise but I am at peace with that. I look at myself in the mirror and I see kindness -- both hers and mine -- and rejoice in the fact that I've been given the gift of years to grow and become a better person than I was when my figure was lithe, my hair dark and abundant, my spirit strong, but largely untested by time.

What a gift it is to have a chance to grow older. So many of my friends have not.

And yet, our youth-oriented society -- epitomized by the the age-porn of "The National Enquirer"  -- considers it a blunder, a shame, an indiscretion when a woman looks her age. (Older men look "distinguished" while older women just look old.)

The older I get, the less I care what others think. I'm at ease with my own face, my own body and my own thoughts.

I think that growing older is a gift -- and I'm grateful for every day, every wrinkle, every new experience and every wise and treasured friend.