Don’t put Boomers in a box. February 18, 2014Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Amish, assisted living facilities, attack on Boomers, Boomer backllash, Boomers, economy, nursing homes, old people, Social Security, Wendell Berry
“We reap what we sow” is never truer than in how we treat the previous generation. Back in the distant day, people stayed in the place they were born, creating extended families of multiple generations. Parents never raised their kids alone: There were a host of others, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles and cousins and second cousins and on and on, not perhaps the village Hillary Clinton had in mind but a solid, stable place to be a child nonetheless.
This was true of the elders of the clan as well: As they became less able to care for themselves, others in the family would undertake their care, from love and duty and a sense of reciprocity: They cared for us, we care for them. People were allowed to live and die at home, surrounded by the generations they knew and loved, the people who loved them.
For a sense of what this was like, our friend Ben recommends Wendell Berry’s excellent Port William novels, set in rural Kentucky; The Memory of Old Jack is the first of them. The Amish in our area still practice this tradition, with their “Dawdi Haus” (“Grandfather House”) attached to the main house so the grandparents, now retired from farming, can still live on their farm surrounded by the children and grandchildren, the fields and the animals, surrounded by life and close to all their old friends and neighbors.
How different this is from the nursing homes and, more recently, assisted-care facilities that now seem like the inevitable end of the elderly unless they’re wealthy enough, and still sharp enough, to defeat this end! In my mind, it all started after World War II, when soldiers who’d seen the world came home but didn’t want to stay in the small rural towns they’d grown up in. So they moved to the cities, often states away from their families, and married girls their families had never seen, girls who had no knowledge of or interest in them, but rather in the “nuclear family” idealized at the time: husband, wife, kids, the end. Maybe they’d pile in the car to see Grandma and Grandpa at Christmas, maybe Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim and their kids would stop by every few years for a quick visit on their way to Disneyland, but that was about it.
Their children, the Boomers, faced dual alienation: Older Boomers became Hippies, rebelling against everything their parents represented (and thus their actual parents), and younger Boomers were sucked into the tar pit of corporate culture, where moving constantly for your job was a requirement for keeping it. This meant that not only were you nowhere near your parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives, but that your own kids were never able to settle down, have the security of home, family, and community, or make lasting friends. Like priests, like soldiers, you were shipped out every few years, and your family shipped with you, in pursuit of that promotion, that job, that salary. And the cost to all concerned was never considered.
The result was mass incarceration of elderly and ailing parents who’d become strangers to their children, who’d been isolated and abandoned by their communities as those they knew, those who cared about them, left or died and were replaced by strangers. Their children were busy, they couldn’t be bothered with caring for the old folks, but they’d made plenty of money and could slap them in a home, or toss them in and then sell their house and use that and their parents’ other assets to pay for their imprisonment.
Far from their families, often tied into wheelchairs, forced to share rooms with strangers, eat the equivalent of cat food, and watch relentless, tormenting 24-hour TV (think of the Louisiana jailer torturing Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs”), this was the end so many parents of busy Boomers, ambitious Yuppies, faced. No wonder so many tried to kill themselves, to do anything to avoid such a dismal, horrific fate.
And yet, it seems that the Boomers who farmed their parents out to die in Orwellian isolation and diminishment, denying their individuality, their talents, their interests, reducing them to a TV dinner in front of an endless cycle of soap operas and reality TV, failed to understand the lesson they were teaching their own children: the lesson of disposability.
I’m sure the lesson is coming home now, though, as every day, there are articles about how Social Security—a program Boomers paid into their whole lives in order to provide retirement security—is something the government gives at its discretion, not something Boomers have earned themselves. As article after article trumpets the horror of the aging global population. As Obamacare is blasted because it will have to shoulder the burden of all those “old people.” As everyone tries to push the retirement age back further, further, further—how about 75?—while the corporations that promised prosperity to the Boomers throw them out wholesale, leaving them to pick up minimum-wage jobs as Wal-Mart greeters, store clerks, and fast-food servers, assuming they’re able to stand on their feet long enough to do the job.
And where are their children and families while all this is going on? They’re off all over the place, pursuing their own lives, disconnected from their parents, their siblings, their extended family. They’ve seen what the Boomers did to their own parents. No wonder the Boomers are now terrified about their own fate and are trying as hard as they can to come up with alternate families, alternate solutions to save them from the fate they allotted their own parents, the lesson they inadvertently gave their own children.
I obviously have little sympathy for those who gave their parents to the home. Though I have the greatest sympathy for those who couldn’t afford in-home care when their parents needed it and were forced to let them go, but who visited them daily and tried to make their last days or years as happy and normal as possible. I thank God I was spared from that, but I honor it.
Anyway. The point of this post is a lesson Boomers may yet learn and pass on to their own children before it’s too late, before our disposable culture makes victims of us all. It’s perfectly expressed by one of my favorite stories, a lesson from Chinese folklore. If you’re a Boomer, tell it to your kids. If you’re a Boomer’s kid, think about this before you believe the press’s claims that your parents are or are about to be a horrific burden to society. Here’s the story:
A farmer toiled in his fields all day, trying to harvest enough food to feed his family. Meanwhile, his old father, who lived with him, sat on his porch peacefully, smiling and drowsing all day. This aggravated the farmer no end. There was his father, sitting in the sun while he worked his ass off trying to feed the family! Forgetting that his father had worked just as hard when he was a child to support him, his mother, siblings, and extended family, the farmer let his resentment grow and grow. Finally, he couldn’t stand supporting that lazy do-nothing another minute.
The exasperated farmer pulled up a cart with a coffin-shaped box in it and demanded that his father get in the box and lie down. Then he hauled the box, with his father inside, to a cliff and prepared to throw it off. Suddenly, he heard a knocking from inside the box. Cracking the lid, he demanded, “What is it?!” His father replied, “Why are you throwing this box over the cliff? Wouldn’t it make more sense to throw me over and keep the box?” “Why keep the box?” the bemused son replied. His father answered, “Because your children will need it for you some day.”
We reap what we sow. Boomers, keep this in mind. Try to teach your children before it’s too late. If your parents still live, try to lead by example. Public sentiment is already against you, positioning you as social vampires sucking the blood out of government programs. Programs you built, programs you led. Programs that are now considered government capital, not rights. Certainly not your rights. Try to climb out of the box before the lid gets nailed on.