One of my friends who’s loosely my age — whatever we’re calling ourselves these days. Young-old, old-young, baby boomers in deep denial about aging and dying? — told me she and others of our generation are making a concerted effort to befriend younger people. You know, that vast demographic with the unlined faces, an excess of energy, and lightning-fast high-tech skills.
The younger generation! They’re everywhere and they move so quickly. I happen to like them, by and large, and often find myself taking up for them when I hear my own wizened generation berating them (superficial! tech-dependent! short attention spans! don’t read books! greedy, materialistic, entitled!).
Oh, please. Give me — and them — a break. I can’t think of anything more predictable or boring than doing exactly what our parents and their parents and millennia of old codgers throughout history have done by dumping on the younger generation. They are always, let’s recall, going straight to hell in a handbasket or some other mode of conveyance. They are always dooming civilization as we know it. They are always inferior to, let’s say, us.
The truth is, they’re simply younger than we are. They’re often immature and untested and inexperienced, which is exactly what they should be. I look at their lives and recall what a tough, but exciting time it is to be young. (I also conclude that I was pretty awful at being young myself; I seem to lack the itchy nostalgia everybody else has about being young, how terrific it was, how much I long for it — the high point of my life. Uh-uh. I’m better at being older, as long as, you know, things don’t get out of hand.)
I’m probably prejudiced about this, since our kids are young and I think they’re wonderful. But I’m also biased because I really treasure my younger friends. I love hearing about their lives, listening to the fresh perspectives of people brought up in a different era, occasionally giving them advice, since I’m so old, I’d damn well better be wise.
Giving them advice: I like to think I’m pretty good at it. Not too intrusive, not too verbose. Just a longer lifetime of perspective. Recently, in fact, I’d mentally prepared myself to give a young friend going through a difficult time some sage advice: Yes, this is a hard time she’s going through. But you know what? Hard times and how well and constructively you handle them make your life. What you learn from failure and how you tackle it and go on determine so much of the rest of your life.
Great advice! Pithy and precise. Except, when I launched into it, she mentioned I’d already told her that before. Well, at least I’m consistent, I said.
Truth is, I still think it’s excellent advice, however shopworn. But I know something else about it, something much more uncomfortable: I need to apply it to my own life and my fears of aging badly, of deterioration, of losing all dignity. I need to handle the remainder of my own life well — and I know it will be a challenge. What if I get Alzheimer’s, like my father? Or Parkinson’s, like my mother? How would I deal with it?
I have seen, up close, productive and independent lives reel out of control. I know how quickly and relentlessly it can happen. Will I allow it to happen to me — or am I capable of making other hard decisions, like assisted suicide? Or will I just talk about it, as I have for years?
I know what some of you will say to me: That I don’t have to think about it now, that none of the above will necessarily happen as I envision it. So why worry about it now?
Because — again — I’ve seen it up close, seen how quickly events and illnesses can lay siege to plans. Both my parents died in ways that would have been abhorrent to them. What makes me think I’m going to be any different? Will Baby Boomers actively make different choices from their parents’? Or are we simply deluding ourselves? You tell me.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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