Term Limits

My elder friend, Margaret, once told me that one’s 70’s were ‘a piece of cake,’ but the 80’s … well, she just rolled her lively eyes and chuckled. She was about to turn 90 and would become widowed soon after this conversation. She had stopped attending Sunday services regularly, though she scolded me, right in the middle of the produce section, for leaving the congregation. I hope she lives a long time.

This month I turned 79 and it wasn’t until I took the training for being a poll watcher that I began to seriously question whether some tasks are beyond my ability to perform with aplomb and confidence. I’ve kind of taken for granted the good longevity genes I inherited from the women in my line: Mom died at 94; her sister, Josie made it to 96; and Granny Daw Thant was well into her 80’s. All were physically active and mentally with it. Mom was swinging a golf club until her knees gave out, and remained a canny bridge, poker and Rummy 500 player until near the end. Aunt Josie, who spent her adult years in the UK, never cared to get a driver’s license. She could run down a bus carrying shopping bags, and worked in her vegetable patch past her 90th birthday. Granny? Legendary for her Thai-style massages, she could hop up on your back to knead the muscles with her feet, never losing her balance — or wicked laugh — until she died, instantly as she always wanted, of a heart attack.

They set a high bar. At 56, I trained as a yoga instructor and launched classes in my stripped-down living room in Hoboken, N.J. I called it 11th and Yoga and filled the space with students three nights a week. My body-mind was my business card. In yoga, I felt as though I’d discovered, if not the fountain of youth, then flexibility and resilience for my later years. I retired from teaching after 20 years, but maintain a regular practice with an app that let’s me choose the kind of class, the music, and the teacher I want to deliver instructions into my ear: Australian Chad, these days. One of my daughters-in-law is devoted to workouts with stretch bands and got me interested in this as well. I put all of this to the test recently, by moving my writing desk up one flight of stairs while my spouse offered sight lines so I didn’t take out the bannisters or scrape the wall.

Post-carding and texting were perfect get out the vote activities during lockdown. But as this particular election looms, I find myself drawn to poll watching because it’s clear we are up against some formidable attempts to interfere with the peaceful process. I have always admired those who serve every election year in various capacities. At my polling place in 2016, I witnessed one very polite worker remind an apparently confused Dr. Ben Carson that having cast his ballot, he needed to vacate the premises immediately. She gently but firmly escorted him out. Doesn’t that sound civil and orderly, the way a democracy is supposed to work?

But I must admit that the hour-long Zoom training to be a poll watcher has given me pause as to whether 1. I can be in the room from 5:30 a.m. to poll closing or even manage a 7+ hour shift during the early voting period which began in my state today, or 2. be mentally sharp enough to challenge my counterpart in the other party if I need to, and text reports of what I observe to the ‘boiler room’ of the Lawyers Bound for Justice. Not to mention that I use hearing aids. As they say, I’m on the fence about this. But it does make me think about the wisdom of knowing when you have reached your personal limits, legends like RBG notwithstanding.

This is going to sound odd coming from the co-author of Too Young to Retire: 101 Ways to Start the Rest of Your Life, an argument for staying in the game long after so-called retirement age. But term limits for all forms of government service are beginning to make sense to me, if only to forestall Murphy’s Law*. Congress is currently full of people who have forgotten why they ran for office in the first place. You don’t need a better argument for term limits than the spectacle of a 48-year-old SCOTUS nominee whose views don’t represent the majority of Americans, possibly gaining a lifetime appointment.

*“If something can go wrong, it will and usually at the worst time.”

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

 

oldyoung
(Photo credit: Ralphiesportal.me)

ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

Perhaps it brings to mind a cherished elder in your life – grandparent, family member, teacher, mentor – as it does for me. Specifically, the bond I formed with my maternal grandmother, Daw Thant, a Burmese woman born in a small village in Northern Burma, who came to live with us when I was 16 and she about 58 (I know, that barely qualifies as an elder these days!)

Adding a fourth generation to our household wasn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. Burmese live in multigenerational households as a matter of course; besides this, even families of modest means like ours, had live-in servants. Ours included, for instance a driver, a gardener, and a maid. Two were married with small children. We also had a Hindu cook who lived elsewhere but was on call every weekday. This made for a lot of people of different ages, with different needs, all sharing if not the same roof, the same compound and accountable to the heads of household. The difference was, the arrival of my grandmother introduced an elder in residence, someone whose mere presence added a certain gravitas to our sometime chaotic household.

Granny moved into a small porch-like space on our second floor. With windows on three sides, it was the breeziest and coolest room in the house. She had arrived with a small suitcase and one cloth bundle as if this might be a short visit when, in fact, she had come to stay. She unpacked quickly. One shelf held all her neatly folded clothing. Another became a shrine, with tiny clay Buddha figure on a cloth napkin and an offering plate that would hold fruit or sweets — the little ones were fed these treats at the end of the day.

Because I had no memory of my grandmother, I had been anxious about how this reorganization of our family could cramp my new-found autonomy: a driver’s license and very little adult surveillance beyond a weeknight curfew. I needn’t have worried. Granny had no interest in policing me. She proved to be adoring, funny, kind, mellow in temperament (perhaps there was more than tobacco in those fat cheroots she smoked). She was patient with my struggles to communicate with her in what was for me a second language. We became the best of friends. But there was more.

She let me into a secret: the power of meditation. She had a twice-daily sitting practice that she never skipped, even when unwell (a rare occurrence). Decades later, as contemplative practices like yoga and meditation have taken root in my own life, I better understand how the practices of her Buddhist faith could have supported her through a difficult life of multiple partners and precarious finances; long separations from her two, boarding-schooled daughters; shortages of every kind during wartime; the foreign occupation of her country. She became a masseuse, an expert seamstress, and an advisor on home remedies for everything from hiccups, the common cold, headaches and sore muscles, an infected insect bite, to an unwanted pregnancy (the maid’s). Granny was equanimity and resilience personified.

Though our culture accorded my grandmother a certain status, I never heard or saw her pull rank. She was equally comfortable with my parents’ guests as she was chatting over a cup of tea with one of the servants, sometimes taking a meal with them. She became the reliable adult presence at home, the company I most sought after school, even though conversing in multi-tonal Burmese was always a challenge for me.

This photo is the future, according to Marc Freedman, author How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, and CEO and president of Encore.org, based in San Francisco. What if ‘forever’ signified more than the current craze among the wealthiest to extend their life span decades, via any means possible? What if we embraced a new role for ourselves as we age, as allies and advocates for the young? What might this look like? An example I love: Project Spring-Winter in Singapore that combines a nursing home with a childcare center for children between two months and 6 years. Read this excerpt from the book and hear Freedman’s TED Talk on this subject here. Sign me up.

Encore (also the title of an earlier book by Marc Freedman) is an organization (motto: Second Acts for the Greater Good), a multi-part movement, and a hub of information and innovation for those of us who aspire to age well by using our experience to solve social problems. The Purpose Prize, created more than 10 years ago to recognize outstanding older social entrepreneurs, is another Encore initiative. Now, with Gen2Gen Encore seeks to “mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for — and with — young people today.” All of this is worth your time. But with Gen2Gen, I’m sensing game-changer.

More ideas to ponder:

Dutch Students Cohabit with Elders

Volunteer to Cuddle

Neonatal Cuddling

Toddlers and Seniors: Institute for Family Studies

Non-Familial Intergenerational Interactions

https://transitiontales.wordpress.com/category/cohousing/

On Being an Elder

When I was growing up in the multicultural circumstances any child of a diplomat or military brat may find familiar, I often encountered the idea that I should show respect to my ‘elders and betters,’ with better meaning of higher social status than my own, e.g. the elders of a tribe, society, or a congregation. I found this hard to swallow given the tipsy hijinks and other questionable behavior I witnessed among the grownups, including those I loved. It has taken a lifetime to help me realize that becoming an elder worthy of respect isn’t a given. Rather, it is something earned, through a patient pursuit of perspective, insight, understanding, and wisdom. “With all thy getting, get understanding.” (Proverbs 4, King James version, and banner for Forbes editorials since the magazine was founded) 

The Carters at Habitat

I aspire to evolve into that kind of elder since, according to the Social Security Administration, my age places me squarely in the elderly cohort. But the irony is that today (with some obvious exceptions), some of the best models for Elder-hood are found outside my peer group, in the Millennials, already shaking up the status quo as freshman members of the new Congress, and the teenaged activists: Greta Thunberg on climate, the Parkland kids on gun reform. I can’t imagine one of them coming up to me after a poetry reading, as one 70-something did, suggesting that what was missing was ‘more uplifting’ material. Apparently my selection of poems on climate had rankled. Good, I thought, though smiling and toasting him with my cup of coffee, it wasn’t mere entertainment

My generation, and the Boomers that followed us, have a lot to answer for to our children and grandchildren about the squandered opportunities to address global warming when smaller, incremental lifestyle adjustments might have arrested, or at least mitigated, the threat. “‘I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead),” wrote Stephen King. We’ve been kicking the can down the road, voting in people who created policy that reflected and protected our shortsighted views, and voting out of office those who would install solar panels on public buildings. We’ve been partying as if tomorrow would never come, as if it were always “50 or 75 years out,” (Andrew Wheeler, new EPA head), and many of us still are.

I hate to take my generation to task (actually, I’m OK with that), but it’s hard to decide which view is more dangerous: that of flat-out climate change Denialists like Wheeler and the president who hired him; those who think individual behavior change is too limited to matter so why bother; or the ‘we-got-this’ group who are banking on a technological fix to cool an overheating planet. But I do know the young, who have a far larger stake in the future than we do, are not wasting their time bickering among themselves, assigning blame, or sitting still. And they know how to communicate quickly and effectively via social media to get things moving. 

For those of us who have retired our marching shoes, there is still plenty we can to to support the children who are cutting school as a way of demanding action on climate, or the arts activists staging public ‘die-in’s’ to protest Big Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic (to cite current forms of activism widely reported). We can write a generous check. Offer a bed, a shower, a ride, encouragement and/or meal to activists and poll workers. Help get out the vote. Vote for, and stay in touch with, the members of congress who show some spine on climate crisis, gun reform, corporate greed, and other issues that threaten our future as a nation and a species. Many of us have the financial clout to support companies who are committed to reducing their carbon impact and reject those who don’t by shopping elsewhere. We can also shop less, and more mindfully to help contain runaway consumerism. And we can, by our example, instruct those who follow. 

If you have other ideas about how to embrace the role of Elder in these challenging times, consider the comment box your welcome mat.