Category Archives: Generations

…and the Purpose Prize Winners Are

  • Judith Broder, a psychiatrist who now enlists therapists to provide free counseling to returning veterans and their families
  • Timothy Will, a former telecom executive who brings broadband – and profits – to economically distressed farm communities in Appalachia
  • Henry Lui, a professor who now turns toxic waste into safe, “green” bricks

broderHenry LiuTimothy Will

Five Purpose Prize winners have won $100,000 each. Five more won $50,000 each.  And 49 were named Purpose Prize fellows.  What distinguishes the Purpose Prize from others is that it not only honors past achievements, but it provides the funds and recognition for winners and fellows to continue their groundbreaking work.

Retirement?  Not for these folks.  They are just getting started on Encore Careers that will make the world a better place.  Read about their big ideas.

Get Back!

350-chart_0Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged, sang The Beatles.  Fast forward a few decades and an entirely different world, Get Back could be the mantra for the, a group of environmental activists including author Bill McGibbon, Van Jones, founder of Green for All and most recently, Obama’s point man on the environment, and Dr. James Hansen (the NASA scientist whose testimony before Congress in the 1980s helped bring the issue of global warming to the foreground.)

350 is the number that leading scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide—measured in “Parts Per Million” in our atmosphere. 350 PPM—it’s the number humanity needs to get back to as soon as possible to avoid runaway climate change.  Click to understand 350 better.

October 24 is the International Day of Climate Action.  This is 4,000 events in 170 countries, the biggest movement on the planet.  We will head down to Delray Beach to join others in Palm Beach Country in the Climate Change Wall of Hope and Shame.   After hearing from members of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition; representatives from the Reef Rescue Team; members of the Whitecloud Turtle Rescue Team; and Greenpeace, we will all stand shoulder to shoulder at 3:50pm for 350 seconds.   Will you stand with us?  Click here to find local events.

See what other older adults are doing:

Gray is Green

Green Seniors

National Senior Conservation Corps

Sometimes All It Takes is a Handshake …

…to show appreciation and common humanity.  That is the core message of this heartfelt and often heart-wrenching  documentary, The Way We Get By, about the Maine Troop Greeters, a group of elderly residents of Bangor, Maine, who meet troops on their return from active duty in Iraq, offering smiles, handshakes and a cellphone to make free calls to family, or send them off with encouragement and pride.

When Joan, Bill and Jerry aren’t volunteering their services at the Bangor International Airport in all weather and at all hours, they have plenty of health and other issues on their respective plates.  Joan Gaudet, 75, mother of the film’s director and a grandmother of eight, takes 13 medications a day and worries about daughter Amy’s assignment to Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot.  She wonders aloud how Americans would feel about outsiders coming here and telling us how to live.  World War II Veteran Bill Knight, the eldest at 87, has seen his life after the death of his wife become overwhelmed by debt, a battle with cancer, and a house full of garbage, clutter and cats.  Yet he faces his own demise with equanimity and his speech is often sprinkled with bon mot: “Leave a car outside and it’ll rust out faster than you can wear it out…just like people.”  Meanwhile 74-year-old Jerry Mundy, wrestles with the death of his son and heart disease, while missing no opportunity to “put a smile on each soldier’s face.”

While The Way We Get By is never overtly critical of American policy, it never finches from the reality of extreme sacrifice as when new arrivals scan a wall for names and photos of their fallen comrades.

The lives of Joan, Bill and Jerry and their passion for this work at ages when many of their peers have decided to sit out the rest of their days, is deeply moving.  Now in wide circulation, this powerful film about the healing power of human connection and how to live each day as if it could be your last, is a must.  Carry a packet of tissues.

Confessions of an ex-snowbird

About half of our friends still split their year between Florida and some other location, but we’ve dropped dual residency and I feel all the better for it. When you turn the key in the lock of a home in South Florida, it is always with the slight trepidation that the hurricane shutters you invested in will fail to live up to the advertising. And in our case, on the other end of I-95, was a home vulnerable to snow, ice and frozen water pipes. We crossed our fingers, packed our important documents in a portable file, loaded the car and headed North or South as the case might be, twice a year. Owning two homes meant a full stock of favorite kitchen knives, pots and pans, linens, food processor, spice rack, exercise equipment, all the things we found indispensable to a comfortable life. It meant shutting down or reinstating phone, mail and Internet service, a process that was seldom as glitch-free as one might hope. Clothing traveled back and forth in the car because it was always warm where one was headed. I did read of one snowbird couple who keeps a duplicate set of clothing in each location.

Of course, Americans are a people perennially on the move, so the desire to ‘winter’ in one place and ‘summer’ in another does not seem particularly strange, in fact, it is a choice to which many aspire as a symbol of prosperity and the good life. For the wealthiest, even two homes will not suffice. That’s may explain why there is such a thriving business in caretaking (see The Caretaker Gazette).

But for me, snowbirding began to feel tiresome, wasteful and ultimately unsustainable. My personal epiphany didn’t arrive with the current fad for thrift that has taken hold of our country. It was the realization that staying in one place meant committing to one community, one town, one weather system, warts and all. Owning (furnishing, maintaining, insuring, etc.) two residences makes one vulnerable to the grass-is-greener curse. It reminds me of a cat I once had that drove me crazy by never being happy for long on the side of a door I had just closed behind it.

If you’ve ever done it you know that it is considerably harder to divest oneself of the two-home lifestyle than to get into it in the first place, when stuff happens more slowly, almost without you realizing how much you are accumulating. If you find yourself in this position, hope that your children will still want grandma’s rocking chair or the oil paintings you found so irresistible and now detest. Or that they are not somewhere in their own second home acquisition or divestment phase. We change. Our stuff remains stuff. Hello eBay. Hello Craig’s List.

Our paring down process continues in this second year of single home ownership. The boxes of family albums may never leave the attic of a the child who lives North of the Mason-Dixon (unless or until the family moves). I think of it as partial payment for the mountain of dirty laundry hauled home from college.

No disrespect to my many friends who continue their annual migrations, but I feel more liberated, grateful for, and contented with just one home, especially when I read about the thousands of those who have lost the only home they did have.

Tough Times Unite Us

Families are pulling together as layoffs and downsizing take their toll.  That’s the silver lining in an otherwise dark economic time.  Case in point, our unmarried daughter, downsized last year from an investment bank and working hard to turn her sideline music business into a living.  She’s visiting us right now, looking for an apartment and part-time work until she gets on her feet as a musician and music therapist (her instrument is the harp).  South Florida is a big change for her as she has lived in the Northeast all her life except for college in Vermont.  But people get married here, too, celebrate big birthdays, hold memorials, and of course, we have a huge population of people in nursing homes and assisted living who could benefit from a little harp music.  For all these reasons, we’re optimistic about this move.

But there is another side to it that makes me especially grateful.  We’re together at a time when we are all adults who respect each others’ boundaries and space.  And if things don’t go according to plan, we elder members of the family represent a safety net, a port in the storm.  That feels good.

We’ve already come together in unexpected ways in the three days we been under one roof, the longest period in some time.  I decided not to fuss over the way my home looks or go nuts making special meals.  It felt better to just relax and let her see our home as her home, a place where it’s OK to let the pots soak in the sink for an hour while the cook writes a blog post or practices her guitar.

Now that there is an application for an apartment in the works and her moving day set, our daughter turned to guiding us through the mysteries of MP3 files for getting music samples out to the public.  Eleven years in the financial world have given her world class computer skills which will not go to waste.  She is established on a great utility for musicians called GigMasters.  It showcases musicians and vocalists, as well as clowns, balloon twisters, Elvis impersonators and jugglers.  Perhaps even this yoga teacher might find it a useful marketing tool.

If she hadn’t been downsized, she would still be getting up at 4 am and taking a train into New York City, and her Florida-based nephews would have grown up not really getting to know her — or she them — the way they will, now that she will be in the same town.  There is something to be said for the curve balls life throws at you.

Friending or Friendship?

Every morning for the last six months or so, when I open my email I find a number of requests from total strangers who want to ‘friend’ me (yes, it’s a verb now). Sometimes we have someone in common. But just as often, the person found me via Friend Finder and was motivated by something in my profile to reach out.

Although I find it difficult to resist opening my Facebook page when I get these messages – funny how that happened! — I’m inclined to turn down request when I don’t know the person, and I don’t bother to open the profile. Nonetheless, by the time I’ve checked the messages and read and responded to some of the wall posts, perhaps 15-20 minutes have elapsed. Enough time for a real conversation on the phone (or Skype), or a thoughtful email exchange. Perhaps even a handwritten note. You remember those don’t you? Back in the day. According to the USPS, there was a drop of 2 million pieces of first class mail from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009. Goodbye, snail mail?

What we are doing to stay in touch with one another is embracing social media, Facebook, MySpace, even Twitter. These are catching on so quickly with older users, there is even advice for people whose children refuse to ‘friend’ them. We may be the fastest growing demographic in the use of Facebook and its ilk – here’s a new one, — but I wonder whether it is creating better friendships or just more online friends. Unless you’re looking for work or running for office, the value of a very large group of people you don’t know well is exactly what? Fellow global villagers, help me out here.

Mostly, I enjoy finding, or being found by, people I’ve known in the past. I like hearing from classmates, former neighbors, yoga students and colleagues. But after you’ve caught up, what then? True, some of your online friends are also the ones who will help you when you move, water your plants or feed your pets when you travel. They may be the ones who bring a casserole to you when you’re recovering from surgery or a broken heart. They may be the patient souls who listen on the phone when you need to vent. And you would do the same for them, not as a quid pro quo, but because there is a mystery and wonder about friendship that needs feeding, tending and celebration. And if you choose to share, comment or ‘tweet’ about your good fortune at having such friendships, you’ll have plenty of company.

Here’s a quote that captures the ineffable, enduring essence of friendship:

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” — Georgia O’Keefe

You are brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring

In May 2009, visionary author and speaker, Paul Hawken, gave a commencement address to the graduates of University of Portland.  He could have been speaking to those of the 50 plus generation.  Read this except:

“There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.” Read more.

But Not for Lunch …

Divorce rates for the general public are at their lowest since the swinging 70s, but U.S. census figures show the divorce rate among those over 65 has doubled since 1980; it grew to eight per cent in 2004 from 6.7 per cent in 2000. In Japan, a popular television drama Jukunen Rikon (mature divorce) featured a woman who dumps her husband after he retires. Not to make light of this, but does the joke ‘for better and for worse but not for lunch’ ring a bell?

A family story: A 50-something couple drive their youngest child to college and after the last box is unloaded and the final embrace concluded, they are back in the car about to pull away. The husband turns to his wife of 26 years and says, “Allow me to introduce myself …”

Here are some thoughts on why mature relationships are so vulnerable and a few simple ideas about how not to become a statistic of failure yourself.

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that relationships are formed in the daily details and patterns of life together, going to work, raising children, keeping your lawn mowed and your dog curbed. Most of us 50 or better came of age, so to speak, in the era of the two-career family. This means that we were apart from our life partner for long periods of every day, and many of us liked it that way. Even if you would have preferred it otherwise, it was real life, and the longer we did it, the realer and more ingrained our patterns of relating.

Change, like more face time in the case of the Japanese wives whose spouses they have dubbed “wet leaves” for their tendency to cling, or a sudden emptying of the nest — can rock the very foundations. It happens in the best of families. How few family gatherings, including happy occasions like weddings or vacations, are models of harmony. I mean, who are these people? And, more to the point, who am I in the relationship?

Maybe we could all use some relationship training, starting say, in the elementary grades. Don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, here are a few things to try when you find yourself suddenly together again, for the first time.

Pretend you are just getting to know each other, and offer the interest, respect and good humor you’d give to a stranger you hope will become a friend.

Give each other space: OK, it’s a cliche, but we all need time alone, to think, reflect, just be, or be elsewhere. Even the most loving, committed partnerships can feel stifled by togetherness 24/7. If one of you traveled on business frequently or for long periods, the other got used to it, filled the time, and the reunion was all the sweeter, right? Make room for that.

Develop your listening skills. Listening is a good daily habit to cultivate and a true survival skill when things get heated. When we are immersed in careers, we become adept at listening selectively for information relevant to our work or the tasks at hand. This may even be a survival skill in our media-saturated world. But our intimate relationships call for more generous, attentive listening. We are all born communicators but listening has to be learned.

Set time aside to talk regularly about what matters: finances, family obligations, quality of life, how you could make each other happier. Let each takes a turn to speak while the other just listens, without comment. Next, the listener might “mirror” back what s/he heard. This focuses the mind wonderfully and can calm things down during conflicts or when there is a difficult decision ahead. Borrowed from a great tool: Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment, Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, Bantam Books, 1992.

Learn to accept change and go with the flow. At an Indian restaurant on New York’s Upper Westside, there is an ornate box by the entrance containing strips of paper, each printed with a message. Here’s the one: “Accept that which is coming in; let go of that which is going out. Want nothing. Embrace everything.”

Leave precedents for a court of law, especially those that start ‘you always …’ or “I never …” Here’s a practice: switch your domestic responsibilities for a few days, without judgment of the results.

Try something new together: dancing, photography, films. Plan a surprise for you both once a week or month. Become tourists in your own hometown for a day. Critique a movie or restaurant for each other. Create a time capsule of your favorite memories. Create a private joke collection.

All good, all the time: Speak only for yourself. Show your affection. Keep your conflicts private. Keep your word. Resolve your issues – or make a date to do so – before you hit the sheets. Give your relationship equal time. Slow down, savor and celebrate your moments together. Do lunch.

Eric Utne’s New Idea

Eric Utne, founder of the Utne Reader and creator of the Salon movement in the 1990s — I was a member of one in New Jersey — has come up with an idea that blends the salon approach with his belief that “every city, town, and village in the world needs its own coulcil of elders.”  If the word ‘elder’ gives you the willies, Utne is out to change your mind.  He aims to “redeem the word elder — an archetypal social type, essential to any vibrant, sustainable community,” and we’re with him 100%.  In these pages, we reported the founding of The Elders which includes Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Muhammad Yunus.  Utne’s Community Earth Councils brings this idea home.  It will connect elders (50+) with those 16-18 of age to address global social and enviornmental challenges at the local level.  It’s an intergenerational initiative that is long overdue.

Old-Fashioned Community Building

Are online communities replacing real ones?  Have you noticed that most people are gazing into a hand-held device rather than making eye contact? Have you observed how many people are plugged into their private world of music? Do you have to pull your grandkids away from their Wii or other video game to play Monopoly or toss a ball around? Are you using email to 1. send birthday greetings (guilty!), 2. offer sympathy, 3. get something off your chest (ouch)?

I couldn’t live without the Internet and my cell phone but the way we are today makes me nostalgic for the years I lived in Hoboken, NJ, a true walking town where every errand could lead to a conversation, a collaboration, a dinner invitation or even (so I heard) a proposal of marriage. On a fine summer evening, we would sit on our stoop on 11th Street and chat with neighbors on theirs, or with passersby. A neighbor and I planted flowers in the divider down the middle of our street one summer, and when I go back there, it still makes me feel really happy. I felt very safe living there, knowing a lot of my neighbors, the restaurant owners, the local merchants. Building community the old-fashioned way is still possible. Here are a few ideas on how to get started.

Turn off your TV and/or computer. Leave your house. Look up when you are walking. Know your neighbor. Sit on your stoop. Greet people. Plant flowers. Use your library. Play together. Help a lost dog. Share what you have. Buy from local merchants. Take children to the park. Garden together. Read stories aloud. Dance in the street. Talk to the mail carrier. Listen to the birds. Put up a swing. Help carry something heavy. Donate what you are not using. Have potlucks. Support neighborhood schools. Fix it even if you didn’t break it. Ask a question. Open your shades. Ask for help when you need it. Hand write a thank you note. Pick up litter. Hire young people for odd jobs. Turn up the music. Turn down the music. Organize a block party. Start a tradition. Share your skills. Bake extra and share. Honor elders. Barter for your goods. Volunteer your time. Take back the night. Sing together. Learn from new and uncomfortable angles. Listen before you react to anger. Mediate a conflict. Seek to understand.

(Thanks to Mary Barknecht, a Voluntary Simplicity workshop leader based in New York City, for the tips.)