Do what you will, but don’t take the keys to my car

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday December 30, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

I am writing from southwest Florida — in Naples — where we are spending the holidays with my soon-to-be 96-year-old mother and are surrounded by many interesting and lively people, also in their bonus years. Some are here year around; others are snowbirds, who live up North in the mild months and retreat to Florida for the winter months.

In fact, we know several snowbirds from the Annapolis area and have come to know several more Annapolitans who have moved here full time.

After spending every day with family, friends and new acquaintances in their bonus years — including sons and daughters and grandchildren  — and discussing bonus years issues and topics, I have come to the conclusion that there are many similarities between the young and the old.

For example, compare older adults and the very young. Jokesters have pointed out that both prefer soft foods — such as yogurt, strained fruits and veggies — and a good cookie. Both aging parents and infants tend to be the center of attention: Aging parents are capture the limelight in reunions with adult children — just as aging parents lavish care and affection on infant grandchildren.

Other examples: Infants, like many older adults, lack teeth, wear diapers and share “urgency” issues while the younger older ones and the older younger ones often get around on bicycles, sometimes even tricycles.

Just as 2-year-olds resist taking directions from their parents, the 70- and 80-something parents resist taking directions from their adult kids, especially when the kids try to take the keys to the car or suggest that they might want to move into assisted living.

Mary Sue and I have personal experience with both of these issues. My mother resisted our suggestions along these lines and was victorious on both counts. Result: She still lives alone in her condominium, surrounded by many loving neighbors who are always there if she needs them. Though she promised not to drive, she still has the keys to the car — and the car.

I have come to the conclusion that car keys are a symbol of independence to the 90-somethings as they are to the teenager who has just turned 16.

Speaking of teenagers, there are even more similarities with later-life adults. The National Academy for Teaching and Learning about Aging has pointed out that both have to pay higher insurance rates to drive a car. Both have to deal with building new friendships.

Many are told they are not qualified to work. Reason: “They” say the teenager is too young and inexperienced with the discipline required in the world of work; the older adult is too old or too inexperienced with the new technologies of the workplace. Both have “issues” with sex: The teenager is too young and not married; the mature adult is said by many to be too old, married or not.

Housing issues are similar: The young move out of the home at 18 or so, but many return to live with their parents for financial reasons owing to unemployment, divorce or a new start. Those in their bonus years also move out — to downsize, moving to a smaller home or apartment — but many return to live with adult children for financial or health-related reasons or to help take care of grandchildren in a two-wage-earner family.

Both teenagers and many older adults share dependency issues — with parents trying to micromanage the lives of their teens while adult children too often meddle or even try to run the lives of their older parents.

And both share aging issues, namely, the physical and emotional changes that are related to age — including occasional depression, feelings of hopelessness, loss of friends, wondering about the meaning of life and “why am I here” sorts of questions.

The wise use of time is also a shared issue. Teens have a lot of “down time” — every day after school and during the summer — and must struggle to find meaningful ways to use their unscripted hours. Those in their bonus years have even more “down time” and risk both their mental and physical health if they don’t find productive and satisfying ways to use it, ways that bring a new richness and meaning to life.

So while all of us are in for some new experiences as Americans grow older, we should recognize that many of the issues faced by older adults are not unique. They may present themselves a little differently, but we all experience many of these same issues at other stages of life. Indeed, aging is a natural and lifelong process of growing, learning and developing.

Just as teenagers are facing a transition to a new life so are those in their bonus years — and new horizons are nearly always both inspiring and daunting.

The industrialist Charles Kettering said, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will spend the rest of our lives there.” True enough, but for many of us, it will be “back to the future” as we deal with issues of work, relationships and good judgment that we have faced before.

As is often the case, the ancient Scriptures said it best: “What has been will be again/What has been done will be done again/ There is nothing new under the sun.”

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