Category Archives: Generations

Bonding with Grandkids

We’ve had a special relationship with one of our grandsons since his birth when we lived a short bus and subway ride away and began to take care of him, one day a week. He is one of five grandchildren now, yet that early bond remains intact. When we have an opportunity to spend some time with this boy, we always seize it. So today, while his mother attended a business meeting, we picked him up from a swim class, and because it was a beautiful day in South Florida and we had a few hours, we decided to take him to a marine life center that opened last year.

We live in an area where loggerhead and leatherback turtles lay their eggs in season, and most mornings when we walk on the beach, we can see their tracks as they crawl up the sand to deposit their eggs. By 9 or so, teams of volunteers have arrived to mark the nests so strollers don’t disturb the eggs. The center is devoted to rescuing hatchlings and nursing injured or sick turtles that get washed up on the beach back to health, so there were both species to see today, as well as tanks filled with sea anemones, fish and hermit crabs.

Today, we had a special treat because one of the teenage turtles was due to be released back into the ocean. There was a good crowd on the beach and a news crew had been alerted. Our grandson was completely captivated by what was unfolding, from the strapping of the turtle onto a gurney, to the wheeling of it down to the beach where a space had been cordoned off for the release itself. We were in the escort party. This female turtle, a volunteer informed us, would probably head right for the Gulf Stream where it has the best chance for survival. Years from now, it will return to the place where it hatched — perhaps even this very beach — and drop its own eggs, one of the great mysteries of navigation.

When the rescued turtle saw or perhaps smelled the water, it began to struggle a little against its restraining straps, and as soon as these were removed, flopped off the gurney and began to crawl toward the waves. A big wave washed over it then another and suddenly it was floating, swimming, and gone. Freedom! We all desire it for ourselves, for other creatures. The crowd cheered. The news cameras rolled. Some day in the future, the three of us will share the uplift of this indelible moment. A reminder of how good life is.

God’s Waiting Room

Last week, as I visited my mother (91 in June) in a nursing home in Western Canada, the reality of what lies ahead for our elders and perhaps for ourselves was so in-my-face, I found myself hyperventilating (yoga training notwithstanding) and struggling to keep my spirits up, for her sake and mine.

In truth, I have a lot to be grateful for. My mom’s facility is as good as it gets: dedicated, kindly staff (if too few of them in oil boomtown Edmonton); clean, comfortable, well-equipped rooms; carefully calibrated meds for pain and depression; and lots of what we used to call extracurricular activities to help residents be more independent and social. Today, for example, a neighboring animal shelter had brought in puppies for petting. Sometimes, it’s nursery school children who are wonderful with old and disabled people. Last week while I was there, they had pub night when residents enjoy some wine and live entertainment.

When it was clear that my mother’s medical needs had become beyond our ability to provide for (geography didn’t help much), we choose this place also for the mix of age groups and levels of disability. So, my mom can socialize with a lovely 50-something woman named Sherry who suffers from MS, but who is also bright, friendly and also interested in jewelry and clothes. There are residents who play Scrabble and cards. And recently, a beautiful nurse-trainee from Brazil in body-hugging uniform, with fashionable haircut and great personality, was assigned there for a few weeks, and everyone perked up. All this costs about $30K/year, or less than half for a comparable facility here in Florida, and some of the expenses are tax-deductible.

But most of the population there are elderly so you can’t fight the God’s Waiting Room atmosphere, and I’m no better at staring that in the eye than the next person. So I spend most of my time amusing my mom: she adores Scrabble and Rummy 500, pizza and sushi, and a new brightly-colored dress. I can focus on these things because she already has her so-called affairs in order: personal directive and living will are all set; she gave me power of attorney a couple of years ago. I know what she wants for final ceremony and exactly where she wants her ashes strewn. Sure, she would rather be traveling to visit her great-grandchildren and spending the winter where it’s warm. But she has found a was to be happy in the moment. If you think about it, that is all we really have.

They Flunked Retirement, and the World Will Be Better for It

What do John Kanzius and Dr. Jose Antonio Abreau have in common, beside being featured in two back-to-back good news segments on a recent 60 Minutes (April 13)? Although motivated by very different causes, both 60-somethings came out of retirement to make contributions to humanity that will be felt for generations, perhaps forever. Here are the summaries of their stories.

Unable to sleep one night during a recent bout of chemotherapy for leukemia, John Kanzius, a retired businessman and radio technician, had a brainstorm: was it possible that radio waves could kill cancer? Months of tinkering in his own garage and thousands of dollars of his own money later, he produced the Kanzius Machine which, combined with nano technology, zaps cancer cells in experimental animals, leaving healthy tissue intact.  Kanzius’ invention has been deemed promising enough to attract research funding.

El Sistema, founded by retired economist Dr. Jose Antonio Abreau in 1975, is rescuing hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans from lives of poverty and neglect, by teaching them to play a musical instrument and introducing them into youth orchestras. The Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, the flower of eL Sistema, now plays to packed concert halls around the world. Says Raphel Elster, one of the leaders, “We work hard. And they love it!”

On Abolishing Retirement

Thanks to Retire Smart columnist, Mark Miller, for letting us speak our minds on the subject of retirement, in particular, why it is an idea whose time has gone, baby, gone. Mark is the former editor of Satisfaction magazine where we picked each other up on the radar. His new baby, is the companion website of Retire Smart, that appears in more than 30 newspapers each week. “For millions of Baby Boomers,” he notes about his own generation, “retirement is an opportunity for reinvention, rather than taking it easy.” Mark is helping write the playbook for the new career and personal pursuits of a generation. Check out the video.

While you’re at it, listen to John Nelson, co-author of What Color is Your Parachute in Retirement, speak about ‘retirement hogwash,’ that is commerce aimed at mature consumers that is ‘misaligned with their values.’

A Long and Happy Life

It’s in our Constitution, but apparently not in our stars: happiness, that is. Perhaps the problem is that we confuse pursuit with the thing pursued, and possibly, we enjoy it far more: the excitement of the chase, the adrenalin rush of competition, the thrill of overcoming obstacles. They make us feel good.

Happiness, notoriously difficult to define (Bartleby’s offers over 500 quotes on the subject), pales by comparison. In any case, we are, according to a new study by Leicester University in England (see 60 Minutes), failing miserably in the happiness race. For all our material wealth and power in the world, we are ranked #23 in happiness, well behind Canada and Costa Rica. Bhutan’s national goal may be the Gross Domestic Happiness of its citizens, but Denmark ranks #1.

Interestingly, what four young Danes interviewed in the segment describe as happiness sounds less like pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss — to cite typical synonyms — and more like contentment, a sense of security in their daily lives (free health care and education, very low crime rate), and not giving a damn about the Joneses. We might take a page from their book and try curbing our expectations.

If advertising messages tell us anything about ourselves, you might draw the conclusion that happiness is having more, bigger, better, newer stuff. Happiness might sell, but apparently we’re not buying it. Diet books, foods and advice are big business, too, yet we have an epidemic of obesity.

Are we stuck with this unhappy state of affairs? Apparently not. According to the positive psychology movement, happiness can be learned. Gratitude, grit, optimism and the ability to forgive are among the aspects we need to cultivate, according to the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the movement. Apparently, older people have absorbed the lessons and generally describe themselves as happier than younger folk, according to research reported in MarketWatch article by Andrea Coombes: “Among U.S. respondents, 89% of those in their 70s and 87% of those in their 60s said they were happy most of the time in the previous week versus 78% of those in their 40s.” Now that’s something to celebrate.

Here’s some other things to ponder or pursue:

Doing good is the greatest happiness. (Chinese proverb)

Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman—or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle. (George Burns)

Happiness is a by-product. You cannot pursue it by itself. (Sam Levenson)

Happiness is a clutter-free environment:

Happiness is a project, that is Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project 

The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.  (William Cowper)


“They take Medicaid, they’re near my house and they have an opening.”

Criteria for choosing a nursing home for a father suffering the symptoms of dementia? Apparently so, for John and Wendy (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney), two estranged and deeply competitive siblings, brought together by a problem that is, or should be, front of mind for anyone with an elder in the family or who hopes to be one some day. Heartbreaking, gritty and beautifully acted (Linney is an Academy Award nominee for her role) Savages, is right on target in depicting the bleak landscape of a typical nursing home, complete with screwball and futile attempts at gaiety, i.e. the changing, nursery-school seasonal motifs, as well as the explosive pressure and the wacky behavior it generates.

Item: in her own when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-go-shopping moment, Wendy attempts to make the barracks-like accommodation more homey for Dad (Philip Bosco). We see her hanging sheer curtains to hide the institutional blinds, plumping up the pillows, and plugging in a lava lamp as a final touch. Not long after, when she finds a cushion she had bought for her father in the firm grip of another resident, she snatches it away while the elderly woman wails. Gut-wrenching.

The film is also a reminder that housing our elders — and one day, ourselves — should the ability to perform many tasks of daily life become too difficult, is a challenge for an entire family, and for the larger community. Except in the most extreme circumstances that demand 24/7 care, there are better, less expensive alternatives to a nursing home (recent figure for South Florida: $5,000/month). It comes as no surprise that most older people want to live as independently as possible in surroundings that are familiar — who wouldn’t? So it is encouraging to find models like the concierge program in Boston’s Beacon Hill Village beginning to proliferate in other cities. The program gives subscribers age 50 and older who live in the neighborhood, access to an array of services for a fee, everything from cleaning and shopping assistance, to car service for a doctor’s appointment or night on the town.

For lower income elders living in subsidized housing, needed services at reasonable cost are available through a program created in South Florida by 2006 Purpose Prize winner, Conchy Bretos. It is in demand nationwide. After she appeared on the Today Show, Ms. Bretos, an experienced lobbyist, activist and executive administrator of special population programs, returned to her desk to find her in-box jammed with over 3,000 email messages.

The Eden Alternative, founded in 1991 by Dr. William Thomas, a Harvard-educated physician and geriatrician, focuses on de-institutionalizing the culture and environment of today’s nursing homes and other long term care institutions. To date, it has trained over 15,000 Eden Associates and now claims over 300 registered homes, in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.

Savages has been called a black comedy. We see it as a wake up call. The long term care insurance that is being marketed relentlessly to older Americans is only as good as the facilities and staff available. We need fresh, innovative thinking sooner rather than later. We need activism.

The Purpose Prize

What if you offered a $100,000 prize for social entrepreneurs over the age of 60? Civic Ventures, a think tank and incubator based in San Francisco, was convinced that such a prize would draw out candidates by the thousands, proving its point that life after 60 is the time for an ‘encore‘ career aimed at societal good. It convinced two foundations to fund the prize and in 2005 began to seek nominations. The nonprofit organization was immediately innundated with nominations from which it selected 60 Fellows, 15 finalists and five winners of the first Purpose Prize. In 2005, Howard and I nominated Rick Koca, founder and leading light of StandUp for Kids which rescues homeless and street children, and he was chosen a Purpose Prize Fellow for 2006. In 2007, we were also chosen Fellows for co-founding 2young2retire, and a week ago, we attended the Purpose Prize summit in Palo Alto, CA. It is the kind of company that leaves you wondering: what am I doing here? Here are a few memories and people that standout for us in a memorable experience.

  • At the airport in San Francisco, we shared a van with Rick Koca of StandUp for Kids and Robert Chambers, 2006 Purpose Prize Winner and president of Bonnie CLAC, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help individuals purchase fuel efficient new cars at very low interest rates. The conversation spontaneously turned to succession issues, that is, whom we could envision carrying our work forward — a founder’s mixed blessing.

  • Life and death issues. Purpose Prize winner, Donald Berwick, MD., a pediatrician whose political-style 100,000 Lives Campaign seeks to improve hospital safety and save lives. Dr. Berwick’s goal is to help hospitals reduce unnecessary deaths by encouraging them to implement six specific, scientifically proven improvements in care, including those aimed at reducing medication errors and infections. In December 2006, his Institute for Healthcare Improvement expanded its goals to avoid five million incidents of medical harm. Nurses for Newborns Foundation, the brain-child of neo-natal nurse, Sharon Rohrbach, has proven to be a low-cost, high-impact way of reducing infant mortality, particularly in populations at high risk. In 2006, the program reached 5,300 children in 40 counties in Missouri and Tennessee. Frank and Peg Brady, who are 2006 Purpose Prize Winners, also direct their efforts toward sick children. Their Medical Missions for Children uses interactive video technology to allow pediatric specialists to remotely diagnose patients and recommend treatment.

  • We had breakfast and talked one morning with Richard Cherry, 2006 Purpose Prize Fellow and 2007 Winner, and creator of the Community Environmental Center, the first New York City nonprofit to focus exclusively on environmental issues of housing and development. Over the last decade, the former Wall Street attorney’s organization has saved low-income New Yorkers $20 million in energy costs, and reduced annual carbon dioxide emissions by 83,000 tons.

  • On another day, 2007 Winner Gary Maxworthy told us how he translated his three decades in the food distribution business and one year as a VISTA volunteer at the San Francisco Food Bank into a new service that brings non-market standard fresh produce to the poor. An expanded initiative called Farm to Family distributed 22 million pounds of produce to 40 California food banks. This year, their target is 34 million.

  • “How Might We?” It’s a deceptively simple question, but one that IDEO, an organization that applies design thinking to products, services, spaces and processes, to help its clients experience innovation directly, come up with new, better answers, and sometimes even change their culture. At our day-long session with IDEO, Howard worked on a team to help Jessica Holt of The Bauen Camp, Parkman, Wyoming, on strategies to scale up her project. They produced a template for a start-up kit. Marika’s team helped 2007 Winner, Adele Douglas, founder/executive director of Human Farm Animal Care, to devise a prototype of a brochure that supermarkets could hand out to customers. Work should always be that stimulating and fun!

  • Tolerance was a big subject among Fellows. Emira Habiby Browne combined her experiences as a Palenstinian immigrant and social service professional into the Center for Integration and Advancement of New Americans. The organization provides support and educational services for immigrants and refugees upon entry into the U.S. to help them gain economic independence and engage in civic life. Shakeela Hassan, a University of Chicago Professor Emeritus, is producing “The Sounds of Faith” a three-part series exploring the connections between the music of Judaism, Christianity and Islam for a national PBS broadcast. 2007 Winner, Phil Borges, is in his second encore career: using photography (his first encore, after leaving his orthodontic practice) to expand children’s worldview and cultural knowledge. Bridges to Understanding has involved 4,000 students in 30 countries. Nearly ten years ago, Richard and Shelli Steckel became photographers dedicated to chronicling the humanity shared by all people, with a special focus on children. Their Milestones Project has reached over 118 million people through exhibits mounted in airports, museums, restaurants, colleges, schools, at the United Nations and on the web.

  • Senior Civic Ventures Fellow and founder of Uplift Academy, Tom Munnecke inspired us with this question: What is the simplest thing I can do to create maximum benefit for humanity?

  • During a break, Marika took a walk toward the Stanford University chapel (our hotel was conveniently located right across the street from the campus), and stumbled on the Rodin sculpture garden and a work entitled, Stone River, by environmental artist, Andy Goldsworthy. If you don’t know his work, prepare to be stunned.

  • One week later, we met with fellow Fellow, Dennis Littky, a veteran, much-recognized educator with some ideas we would like to see implemented throughout the educational system. In 1996, he co-founded the Met Center High School in Providence, Rhode Island, a school designed to meet the personal educational needs of underserved urban students. All you have to do is talk with students — as we did — to know it is working. With the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Littky’s model has been embraced by 54 schools, all public schools with fewer than 150 students. A college matching up Prime Time mentors with students is in the works, which is something that got our attention. For more, see his Big Picture Company.Nominations for the Purpose Prize are open. Deadline is March 1. Join the Encore revolution!

Can We All Get Along?

Longevity is making four-generational families commonplace. You see it at family reunions and special celebrations honoring long-lived family members. And inevitably, four generations are showing up in the workplace, as more people 50 and older choose to keep working longer, often among those young enough to be their grandchildren.

How well (or poorly) we will get along is the subject of a new book, How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More (Career Press, 2007) by Robin Throckmorton and Linda Gravett, based on a three-year study of workers from each age group.

Here’s how the authors see the generational divisions:

Background: Children who remember the Depression and/or World War II, appreciate employment and career continuity.

Common characteristics: Strong work ethic, extensive job experience. Often perceived as frail or inflexible.

Comments: “People are sometimes afraid of radio babies for health reasons. But radio babies want people to recognize that their bodies and brains still work. Those hiring people between 60 and 80 tell us they’re the most productive workers they have.”

Background: Boomers grew up with post-World War II prosperity and TV; entered the work force when “career path” meant a single company ladder to climb.

Common characteristics: Hard workers, experienced and loyal. Sometimes seen as “stuck in their ways.”

Comments: “A lot of people are reluctant to hire boomers, thinking they’ll retire soon,” Trockmorton says. [But] They want to keep going. They want a better work-life balance. And their second career is often much different than the first one.”

Background: Latchkey kids, often from dual-income homes. Entered the work force at the dawn of the Computer Age.

Common characteristics: Independent, flexible, technologically diverse. Can be perceived as self-absorbed or disloyal.

Comments: “This is the first latchkey generation, so they’re very used to surviving on their own. They change jobs more often, so they put less stock in company loyalty. So, they can be seen (by elders) as impatient with their careers.”

Background: Raised in a fast-paced, violence- and media-saturated, technologically booming world.

Strengths: Energetic, innovative. Can be viewed as arrogant or defiant.

Stereotype: “Gen Y’s are sometimes called ‘Gen Why?’ because they question everything. They look for the value in what they do, and are less inclined to confer respect upon someone because of a title.”

Given the differences in work attitudes, e.g. Radio Babies are famously ‘loyal,’ with a strong work ethic, vs. the Gen Y’s ‘what’s in it for me’ approach to work, the best strategy is “reverse mentoring,’” says Throckmorton. “Each group draws from the other’s wisdom. Boomers and radio babies know how things get done, and have the experience that comes from years inside the system. Generation Xers and Gen Y’s have a lot of new ideas and technological expertise. And those born on the cusp of each generation are vital because they communicate well with both sides. It does work, and we found that the generations born furthest apart have the most to teach one another.”

None of this will be news for you grandparents or Experience Corps mentors out there, of course.

Knock, Knock. Who’s There?

Some week ago, I was asked by a colleague in the aging field to consider serving on a panel on the use of the Internet by the older population, specifically, on how the Internet is creating a new ‘space’ for electronic elders, a la My Space.

No doubt people are jumping into that space. There was considerable buzz about the launch of, the social networking site dedicated to people 50+ (or, it was, but the last time I checked, it was 49+). The zippy slogan, ‘loving the flip side of 50,’ certainly is a grabber, and anything that founder, Jeff Taylor, would create, gets my attention. Eons was attracting money, too: $22M in the most recent round of financing. But from my own experience of writing a newsletter for the age group, I really wondered if there was a need for an age-segmented social networking site.

I signed up for Eons anyway (284 days ago, according to my profile), and joined five different groups — careers for the 50+, home-based business, books, yoga and long-distance grand-parenting — and after some interaction with other group members, I have to wonder along with Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs and expert on the social implications of communications technology: “Is being over 50 years old strong enough affinity? I’m not so sure.”

Maybe this is an idea before its time. New research published in Business Week suggests that may be the case. Among the Older Boomers (age 51-61), 8% are involved in social networking, for Seniors (62+), the figure is 6%. A huge generation gap. Yet, 61% and 70% of these same groups, respectively, are ‘on line,’ reading blogs and gathering information. Just not active in social networking. If this describes you, and you want to get your feet wet and see what the hubbub is all about, you might start with Social Networking 101.

And if you are among those entrepreneurs of a certain age who want to connect with your age group for whatever purpose, you could interpret these stats as an opportunity disguised as a problem. In the words of oft-quoted management guru, Peter Drucker: The best way to predict the future is to create it.

The Big Squeeze

If you belong to the Big Chill generation, welcome to the Big Squeeze.

A parent has become elderly and dependent on you. Whether physically, financially or emotionally, it all adds up to the same: you have switched roles. At the same time, your spouse, partner or child becomes needy — surgery, illness, layoff, or other life-altering event.

There you are, in a role few would choose willingly: squeezed between competing needs, pulled between the desire to do the right thing for those you love, and the need to take care of yourself so you can do the right thing.

Even if you have caring family and friends — and be grateful if you do — it can be a difficult period to get through. Some days are a blur of doing. On a good day, you feel like Chris Bliss, the amazing comedian who keeps three balls moving in time to the Beatles’ Golden Slumbers. Sometimes, it feel like a three ring circus, especially if you are working — even part-time — or have other obligations (who doesn’t?) You may feel happy to be ‘the strong one.’ You may feel satisfied, proud, almost heroic. But mostly, at the end of the day, you’re depleted. Send in the clowns, please!

A few things you could try to take care of the default caregiver you’ve become.

  • Humor. As Norman Cousins famously discovered, laughter is great medicine. “A good way to jog internally,” he called it.
  • Sit down for every meal.
  • Take a nap even if you are not a naturally napper.
  • Take deep breaths when you start to feel impatient or irritated and ask the person for whom you are providing care, to do the same.
  • Load up your Ipod or CD player with the music you really love and listen to it a lot.
  • Get exercise, preferably in the fresh air. Start an exercise program if you’ve been putting it off.
  • Keep the door open to all offers of help in whatever form they come.
  • Get a massage, manicure, facial. Whatever makes you feel cared for.
  • Keep visualizing the people you are caring for as the babies they once were.