Category Archives: Relationships

Oh, I’m Just a Volunteer …

Every time I hear someone say “I’m just a volunteer,” I feel like pulling that person aside for a pep talk.  Like ‘just a housewife’ which once kept women in their so-called place, this phrase speaks of self-sacrifice and low status.  It has no place in the reality of what community service is and could become in the 21st century.  One fact: U.S. Government data for 2008 show that 61.8 million Americans or 26.4 percent of the adult population contributed 8 billion hours of volunteer service worth $162 billion*.  Much harder to calculate is the impact of community service on civic life, except when one tries to imagine what life would be like without the hundreds of nonprofit organizations, foundations, faith-based charities, service clubs, and the PTA.

Possibly someone who calls herself  just a volunteer hasn’t found a fit between her skills and an organization that knows how to put them to good use.  Sure, we all gladly stuff envelopes, work the phones and canvass during a campaign, but if you regularly donate your time, you need — perhaps even more than people on the payroll – a clear sense of mission and how your efforts are helping accomplish it.  Research shows that the real challenge is retaining volunteers, one-third of whom quit after the first year.  If you are one of these folks, think again.  Whatever you have to bring to the table, there is the right match for you, and a world that badly needs your time and care.

There is much evidence that suggests we are hardwired for altruism.  Good Samaritans of all ages, shapes and sizes turn up all the time.  People risk their own lives to save someone else’s.  Why?  Because, as people committed to community service soon discover, it feels good to give.  Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train, puts it this way: “The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people.”  Children do it.  Busy people do it.  Even those of modest means and education do it.

I think of the story our UU minister told last Sunday.  On the way home from a wedding ceremony in rural New Jersey, her car broke down.  It was getting dark as she got out, dressed in high heels and long minister’s robe.  She stood by the highway, trying to flag down some help.  Many cars passed without slowing down.  Finally, an old van packed with a family of migrant workers stopped.  They made room for her and drove her to the nearest gas station and phone, then waited until they knew help was on its way.  “They were tired and probably hungry,” she said, “but they waited.”

I think of our eight year old granddaughter who raised $100 all by herself for the children of Haiti.  And the Cub Scout troupe our grandsons belong to, that does regular beach cleanup.  And I think of the Purpose Prize community, “individuals over age 60 who are defying societal expectations by channeling their creativity and talent to address critical social problems at the local, regional, or national level” at a time when many of their peers consider their work and their best years behind them.

Community service is contagious when we take pride in what we do.  And we should, no matter how lowly the task may seem.  Serving helps you connect with other people; it encourages you to learn things you didn’t know, even about your own capacities; you feel a part of something bigger; you feel needed, depended upon, valuable. Sometimes it opens doors to a new career, friends, a mate.  So doing the right thing by others is ‘selfish’ because, as all the wisdom traditions teach, we are one.  The people who really need a pep talk – or something stronger – are the ones who saw a woman stuck beside her car on a highway, and just kept right on driving.

More resources:

AARP Create the Good

Idealist

The Purpose Prize

Volunteering in America

Volunteer Match

*Using Independent Sector’s 2008 estimate of the dollar value of a volunteer hour ($20.25).

Go Online, Get Happy and Healthy!

A report just released by the PHOENIX CENTER POLICY PAPER SERIES indicates that Internet usage can significantly reduce depression among older adults.  Of course, since I’m writing this and you’re reading it, we are in the minority of older adults who are already online (42% of people over 65).  Chances are you, like me, regularly use the Internet to manage your money and health, keep up with the news, shop and share stuff.   You may also have joined one of the many social networks and now have a host of online friends.  You stay in touch with distant family and friends, sending photos and your favorite You Tube videos.  For me, all of this now seems as natural as breathing and I have to remind myself how relatively new the marvelous Internet is.  But I didn’t know that I was also keeping myself — and the economy — healthy by doing all these things until I came across this report.

Here are some interesting facts about depression and the older population:

  • latelife depression affects about six million Americans age 65 and older
  • depression is estimated to cost the United States about $100 billion
  • included in this figure is direct medical cost (31%) and latelife suicide (7%)

Here’s an excerpt of the the abstract:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 directs over $7 billion to expand broadband Internet availability and adoption in the United States. One target of such funding is the elderly population, a group of Americans for which broadband adoption is relatively low. An interesting question is what benefits do such efforts
afford? We employ a dataset of over 7,000 elderly retired persons to evaluate the role of Internet use on mental well-being…using the eight-point depression scale developed by the Center for Epidemiologic Studies (CES-D)…All procedures indicate a positive contribution of Internet use to mental well-being of elderly Americans, and estimates indicate that Internet use leads to about a 20% reduction in depression classification.

On the chance that Pseudo-R2 Analysis of Matching Algorithms are your thing, the full report is available in a pdf file,  see link in opening line.

In the meantime, do your patriotic duty.  Surf on!  And invite the Internet holdouts among your buddies to jump in.  The water’s fine.

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.

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, www.genkvetch.com — 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

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.)

Elegy: Growing Up is Hard to Do

Every so often, we get a film about aging that touches a nerve in those of us of a certain age.  About Schmidt was one such film.  Savages, another.  Now in new release is Elegy, starring Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley, a film that captures what the word elegy means: a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, esp. a funeral song or a lament for the dead.

David Kepesh, 70, successful cultural maven — the film opens with Kepesh (Kingsley) being interviewed by Charlie Rose — is dead inside, or very nearly so.  He teaches, he is interviewed and interviews aspiring new writers, and he struggles to assert the life force, expressed largely through sex or his own ’emancipated manhood,’ as he puts it.  His only friend and fellow writer/academic, George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) appears to be similarly stuck: sleeping with available younger students, and in his case, cheating on his wife of many years.  Kepesh is estranged from his own son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), the child he abandoned in a divorce, and unable to give him support in his own marital crisis. He is in a 20 year affair with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson in a glowing smaller role), enjoying great sex and fending off deeper commitment.

Into one of Kepesh’s classes and his life, steps the luscious Cuban emigre, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz).  At a holiday party for his students, he seduces her with his erudition and worldliness.  They become lovers despite, as he points out, a 30+ year gap in their ages.  But she remains something of a mystery to him.  At one point, they examine Goya’s portrait of the Naked Maja and Consuela blocks out all but the woman’s direct gaze.  Who am I to you, she seems to be asking, a question Consuela will later put to David as they dine in a restaurant. Says George in one of their many man-to-man talks, “Beautiful women are invisible; we’re so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside.”  The truth is, David and George haven’t truly made it to the inside of anything, and time is running out.

This is a film about growing up, and how it eludes us when we allow ourselves to be captivated by the surfaces of life: youth, beauty, success, sexuality, all of which pass, often before we are ready to let them go and find something deeper to live for.