Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland
I remember my father repeating the old adage, “We grow too soon old and too late wise.” The older I get, the more I understand the truth of those words. With age comes a broader and deeper perspective on life, human relations and our place in the universe.
I thought of this a week or so ago when I re-connected with an old friend and former Annapolitan, Bill Whitehead. A few years back, Whitehead moved from Annapolis to Nashville to be with his aging father, Floye, now 92. At 60 years old, Whitehead is not the typical boomerang son!
Here’s the story. Bill’s father grew up a sharecropper’s son in Alabama. After serving in WW II, Floye moved his family to Nashville, where he spent 35 years working administrative jobs with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Bill’s mother died when Bill was nine years old, which, in due course, led to a breakdown in his relationship with his father, an estrangement which lasted nearly 40 years.
During this time, Bill went off to college and then to work in the financial services industry, which led to business activities in investment banking, health care, telecommunications and real estate.
When his father came down with a life-threatening, intestinal disease a few years ago, Bill came to his side. When Floye recovered, he announced he did not want to go to assisted living, and he didn’t want to move in with his adult children.
At that point, Bill said, “Pops, what about if I move in with you? My business requires me to travel from time-to-time but most of the time I can do my business on the Internet and the telephone. That means I can be here when needed to help you with housekeeping and other activities of daily living. Who knows,” he said, “we might even learn to enjoy each other’s companionship again.”
At that point, Bill and his dad had a long-delayed but long-needed talk about the past, the decades-long estrangement and the need to heal a long-stressed relationship between a father and a son. The reflection and the talks led to reconciliation, after which Bill left Annapolis and moved to Nashville to live with Pops and build on their new-found relationship.
I talked to Bill the other day, and he said he had read a lot about older parents who come to live with their children, but not a lot about older adult children who move in with or close by even older parents so they can give back to their parents in the form of care-giving.
Bill said, “While a lot of attention is being given to new retirement communities springing up around the country, most older people can’t afford them and many who can will still prefer to stay home.”
Whether he knew it or not, Whitehead was talking about what others call the “aging in place” movement. And Bill’s decision to move in with his father is yet another approach that makes aging in place possible.
But when we think about aging in place with the assistance of adult children, we usually focus on the benefits to the adults. In my book, Reboot, I call this “Samaritan work.” But Bill rejected the idea he was doing Samaritan work. Instead, he said, he was more like the Prodigal Son.
Bill said whatever benefits his dad received from their renewed and reconciled relationship, including his care-giving, were nothing compared to the benefits he, Bill, has received: “I moved to Nashville to give a gift to my father; I ended up giving a gift to myself.”
Bill continued, “My dad has a servant spirit. He reads Scriptures every day. He is an elder in his church. He could have done anything with his life, but he took an administrative position that gave him a paycheck, insurance and retirement, and he was satisfied with that because it permitted him to focus his time and energy on his family, his church and his community.”
Bill went on to say, “With the perspective of time, I can now see the value of the choices he made. Most importantly, I have learned a lot from being with my dad every day – not the least the value of humility. Living with Pops made me realize I have not been a humble man. Too often I have been haughty. I am growing in my own life by serving my father. It has been an unexpected journey but one that is totally rewarding, uplifting and vitalizing.”
In fact, I am coming to think that wisdom is never too late, and the best of us – like Bill and Pops – will always keep learning and growing, even through our bonus years. Wisdom aside, it is never too late to mend fences, even those in disrepair for a long time. As for Pops, he wins the biggest prize: Those who know you best respect you the most.