Make New Friends, Make Better Plans?

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)

Read more about the sweet relief of giving up

25 comments… add one
  • I’ve been thinking about this. You’ve said it.  And powerfully, too. No surprise there!

  • “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
    frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
    words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
    respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
    [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

  • Interesting question, Ruth. I’m a true Gen-Xer, and the only thing anyone ever said about my generation is that we were “slackers,” which I know is NOT true, but there you go.
    Still … even at my age (42), I find myself wanting to holler at those a bit younger than me or those of my generation who’ve yet to be “tested” in any way … by marriage or eldercare or any such grown-up concern.
    When they post things on Facebook, for example, about their weekend plans or how they wish everyone a super-duper week … I kind of want to punch them. I’m crabby that way, after a year+ of non-stop illness and death all around me.
    I do not know the answer to your question, but I do know that I’ve been thinking this … if I’d known what would consume my 40s, I would have had more fun in my 20s and 30s.

  • Huge issue for all of us – no matter what our age. I don’t have all of the answers for sure.

  • Important thoughts. We should allow ourselves to think them more often. Usually, however, thoughts of this nature get pushed to a dark corner of the brain.

  • Sheryl Link

    THis is a question that plagues me all the time, being a baby boomer myself. I fear for the future yet don’t want to overlook the fact that NOW is the time to enjoy my life. And I have lots of younger friends. I’d like to think we learn from one another.

  • I love being around young people — it was one of the things I liked best about working for Oxford University.  And like you, I think often about those getting old issues.  But mostly I just try to keep up with my mother.

  • No! I absolutely refuse to go down the same path as my parents. The day I walked away from my corporate job four years ago was the best day of my life and the beginning of a new way of living. I gave up all my material “stuff” and found it had been weighing me down for years. I now travel more or less perpetually, have no home, just go where the wind blows me. I live in the moment – right now is all I have. And I am blissfully happy. I will worry about sickness when and if it comes and like you, I hope I have the courage to do what’s necessary. But that is tomorrow, not today. Plan, yes. Obsess about the past or worry about the future? Not for this 58 year-old teenager.

  • This post made me laugh. I have a really good friend who has a gazillion friends who are 20 years younger than she is. And another girlfriend who is dating a 28-year-old (she’s 41). I don’t know what I think. I like being around people with energy and ambition, no matter what their age. But I fear I don’t like silly immature people, no matter what THEIR age… Still, I think it is good to have friends of a variety of ages. And if you lived closer, you’d be my BFF (that stands for Best Friend Forever in case a geezer like you doesn’t know the abbreviation!)

  • Such an interesting post!  Inspires a lot of different thoughts.  I’m about the same age as you, or a bit older even.  I remember an English  teacher in ninth grade.  She had greying hair and I thought she was ancient.  She used to smile at us and say it was time to take out one of those brand new brain cells and imprint it with whatever the subject was.  I thought, how kooky.  Well, now I do that.  When I want to be 100% sure to remember something, I consciously get out a brain cell and imprint the idea on it.  Ha-ha.  She was right.  It works.  But, I did not have to do that when I was younger.

  • I love having friends of all ages, and the younger ones do get a bad rap. But, I do remember myself in my 20s…

    Having a plan for when things go downhill fast. I think it’s a good idea.

  • Cindy D. Link

    I think the conversation about what we are  going to do about the illnesses that come with aging is an important one to have on a regular basis.  Several of my friends and I are trying to think through options.  My mother died peacefully with Hospice help when she decided not to pursue further treatment for her breast cancer; but I have a friend who’s mother is still taking her diabetes and heart meds even though she has Altzheimer’s.  Without those meds her 84 year old body would begin to naturally shut down.  It is a huge dilemma.  Watching the toll this process is taking on everyone is heart wrenching.

  • Craig Link

    I think most don’t consider it deluding themselves, but the short answer is no, things will not be different. I think it will take generations to effect any change to the idea we are supposed to live forever and are getting shortchanged if we only make it to say seventy. I have spent the last many years seeing people desparately clinging to life when they should have died years ago and others who can’t die even though they have been trying to do just that. How you gonna win that game?  
    I like hanging around young people because it makes me smile

  • Oh, Ruth, you raise such sobering questions for those of us who are baby boomers (that would be me). I find myself packing more than I can physically do into each day just to make sure that I’m living my life fully. No sitting around moping or watching TV for me. Perhaps what I’m really doing is avoiding facing the fears that you have raised.
    As far as younger friends, my own children would be amazed to learn that some of their peers consider me wise and fun to know. I value knowing younger people. They keep me from being a grouchy old woman.

  • I really enjoy friends I’ve had for 30 years or more. There is something marvelous about being close that long. It has never occurred to me to seek out younger friends because of their age. As Hip Hop Elder says in my musical play A New Wrinkle, “I’ve been young already, but you have never been old, so I am one up.” Is the drive to associate with younger friends just another expression of denying or avoiding aging?
    Yes the young are beautiful and quick. Lovely. In my own work (creative aging and the art of aging) I explore the value and beauty of age both for individuals and society.
    Yes, things will get out of hand as you say. We will either fall ill and die or just die. I feel fortunate for my Tibetan Buddhist practice in this regard because it has led me to contemplate death for many years. Dying is the biggest life event since being born and just as much of a mystery and challenge.
    Sailing toward 70, I find this stage of life immensely interesting.

  • My generation was never really given a title–I came just after the Gen Xers. Frankly, I find life gets more and more interesting as I get older. It’s almost surreal to have all of this experience to draw on and I’m looking forward to gaining more. That said, it makes me listen just a little bit more when I hear those with more experience, yup, folks who are older than I am, offer me a bit of advice.

  • When I was in my 20’s life was pretty grim.  I had a terrible marriage, no marketable skills and 3 little children.  No way I’d go back to that predicament.  These days all young people (except for my adorable grandchildren) look alike.  My young friends are your age, Ruth.
    I fear dementia.  My mother did fine until about 95, then she began to slip mentally.  Before that she was the smartest person I ever knew, until my daughter and her brother came along.  I am more scared of dementia than of cancer or other diseases of the body.
    At the moment my brain seems to be working reasonably well, and it’s a very nice day.  The weather is lovely and there isn’t anything pressing to do, so I shall write a bit and paint a bit and water my flowers and vegetables, drink wine with Jerry and cook a chicken, walk with Jerry and the poodles in the evening, watch our DVD course on the Vikings and go to bed.  Today is clean sheet day.

  • I have friends and acquaintances of various ages.  When viewed from a distance among themselves, I can see why others of my generation say the young are going to hell in a handbasket.  Such thoughts graze my mind as well.  When teaching the very young (3 to 5) I always remembered the rule: don’t talk down to them.  I am always surprised this works so well with those in their 20’s and 30’s too.  I get addressed as Sir or Mr. Winston, voluntarily.  Some say I’m cooler than their parents, yet I don’t do or say much of anything “youthful” or “cool.”  It’s just a matter plying the younger ones with respect while mentally taking them by hand and dragging them upwards towards my level of wisdom.  Ha! there’s not even any kicking and screaming either!  And, yes, I say I’m wise.  Wisdom has a lot less to do with book-learning than the fact that I’ve already been there, done that, and figured out how to live through it– at least up until this point in time.  Wisdom is in the eye of the beholder.  Of course a sudden unprovoked turn of a cartwheel down the hallway can work magic on the youth of today as well.  A sixty year old man with full, longish white beard flapping in the breeze is a sight!  Shhhhhhh!   Don’t tell anyone but lately my chest tightens at the fear one or more of my joints may give way at the crucial point of a cartwheel and– splaaaaat!  Oh well, maybe one of those wicked, youthful things looming over my twisted body will extend a helping hand and climb one step closer to wisdom.

  • Anne Gibert–
    Dementia didn’t catch up with your mom until 95?  Wow!  What longevity.  What a great track record!   And writing, painting and taking DVD courses stimulate brain cells and is good preventive medicine against dementia.  And remember, should any form of dementia creep up on you waaaay down the road, trust your smart daughter and her brother will know how to best hold your hand and walk you through it.

  • My 83-year-old aunt recently moved from a small town in Texas to Portland, Oregon and she is loving it. She has set a great example for me that it’s never too late to make changes in your life and try new adventures. We’ve developed a strong pen-pal exchange (email) and, especially since I lived in Seattle for many years, are having so much fun exchanges tales of the Northwest.

  • Isn’t it really about who you connect with? Also, do you think it’s a myth that older is wiser? I would say it can be true–at times…but as a blanket statement it kind of falls flat. Then again, I know lots of younger people who are not as vibrant as older people because the older people have had time to work through their “stuff” (and have worked through it)  while the younger set is still bogged down.

  • Great article and discussion!  I was about to tear into Melanie – then I saw the reference!  Way to make the point!  As to making friends younger & older, like most of you here, I care only for how I connect with another human.   My boyfriend is 17 years my senior.  We just had dinner with a friend of his who’s half my age.  My best friend 13 years my junior.  That’s a lot of math!  As to the plan for the end, keep your body healthy, your mind sharp, and attitude positive, and with a bit of grace you’ll die peacefully at a ripe old age, making it a mute point.  By thinking, interacting, and writing like this Ruth, I think you’re a good way there!  God Bless!

  • This post reminds me of something my peers and I — a bunch of 40somethings moving through mid-life, some with ease, others of us with the grace of an elephant — have gotten to marveling at. Namely, the confidence of women in their 20s and 3os whom we’re bumping into at job interviews or as editors/bosses or colleagues or at conferences.
    We wonder: Were we ever that self-assured? Somehow the older (and, yes, wiser) I get the less certain I am that I have all (or even most) of the answers to the vexing questions of life.

  • It makes me sad when people don’t give others the leeway they once took themselves. Of course younger generation are inexperienced; it’s the clear mark of youth. Do people forget their own earlier years so easily?
    Being only in my 30s, I can only nostalgically look back on my teens, which, sadly, were terrible. I don’t miss my younger years at all – I’m quite glad they’re over.
    That said, my 20s weren’t so great either. Sure, I had fun, but that decade was a painful mash of tough experiences that ended in a bad marriage and a cornucopia of health problems. It leaves me wondering if I’ll ever have a period of my life that I’ll look back on fondly.

  • Wow, that was a downer of a comment. Sorry!

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