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Don’t put Boomers in a box. February 18, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“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.



1. B. Siegemund-Broka - February 18, 2014

This is a remarkably hard-hearted, judgmental post. I am disappointed. Having just lost my father two months ago after struggling to care for him and yes, eventually, placing him in a nursing home because I could not meet his needs, I suggest you do not know what you are talking about. The situations you write off as “incarceration” are so varied, so numerous, so complex, it’s impossible and breath-takingly harsh to generalize as you have. You lost a reader today.

Hello. I’m so sorry for your loss! And I certainly understand about your struggles to keep your father at home and eventual (and doubtless agonizing) decision to place him in a nursing home. I thank God every day that I wasn’t faced with that choice with my own parents, with the heartbreak of sending them away. And yes, it was the luck of the draw, the grace of God, certainly not any virtue on my part. You’re also quite right that there’s a very wide range of facilities available for elder care; we have a very highly regarded one not 15 miles from here, and I’m sure you chose the very best available for your father’s last months. I’m sorry you came on this post at such a bad time, and wish you all the best in your grieving and healing.

2. bklynjane - February 18, 2014

I had mixed feelings about today’s post. Part of it was right on and the rest of the ride was a little bumpy. Not sure where the energy came from since you have not walked this walk. You have been spared the heartbreaking experience of placing a loved one in a nursing home or an assisted living facility. Why then does your writing feel politely angry and mostly misdirected?

I’m wondering if some literal or figurative part of you has been placed in a wooden box or shoved back into the darkness because it was no longer viable. Your post would have been less caustic and easier for me to read if there had been a personal connection to care of the elderly.

One more thing..can you find another word for Boomers? It has lost its color and flavor and is not a good descriptive word for a generation of people who have given birth and witnessed such cultural changes in society.

Hi bklynjane, and thank you so much for your thoughtful response! To answer your last comment first, I’ve never liked “Boomer” either—it sounds like a cross between a BMW and Thumper. And I feel that it’s really two generations, the beehive/Hippie/Vietnam vet generation and the ones who came after and missed all that, who grew up with Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper rather than the pre-disco BeeGees and Beatles and the Twist and so on. Those who missed the Summer of Love and the riots and Vietnam were (and are) very different people from those who were caught up in them, both more shielded and deprived of the dream that what they did could actually matter. Sadly, I have no good names for either set, though I tend to think of the early Boomers as the Cavaliers, those brilliant poets, painters, musicians and warriors in their 20s and 30s, also with long hair, who believed in the power of dreams and ideals back in the days of Charles I and were crushed under Cromwell’s grim iron heel.

Moving on to your comments about today’s post, as I suppose is obvious, we have a strong tradition of death with dignity in my family. My great-grandfather lived with my mother and her parents for many years before dying at home; after my grandfather’s sudden and unexpected death, my grandmother lived her last 13 years at home with us. My parents were both blessed with the grace of a home death (father) and home until the last few hospital days (mother), surrounded by loved ones. I pray that when my own time comes, I may die at home (preferably waking up dead), die quickly in a hospital, or die in hospice care when being at home is no longer possible.

And yes, you are quite right, I have been spared the agonizing decision about whether or not to put a beloved parent or family member in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, or face bankruptcy as a result of providing round-the-clock home care. But I have seen friends watch their parents’ savings, and then their own, drain away to provide that care so their parents could be at home, have watched others give up years of their lives to care for their parents so they could stay and die at home, and have watched the dread of so many people at the prospect of being put into a “home,” how bitter they are, how they fight to come home. Whatever their sacrifices, I can’t think of a single friend who would choose a different option than the one they took to keep their parents at home. By contrast, I have never encountered even one person who ever announced that they were really looking forward to moving to an assisted-living facility or nursing home.

There are, of course, many grades of these facilities, just as there are many grades of apartments, from burnt-out tenements to multi-million-dollar penthouses. But moving into any of them means an indelible loss of freedom, of independence, of individuality, things that all Boomers, whatever their age, prize above everything else.

Sorry to have droned on at such length, and please feel free to check back in with further thoughts!

3. bklynjane - February 19, 2014

Droning is good..it creates a picture that I need for closure. I understand now where you are coming from. For me, understanding is everything. There is much more inside me concerning this topic, but this morning, time will not allow the feelings a voice. Like Patton, I shall return. 🙂

4. Becca - February 19, 2014

What an interesting response your post has drawn! My young boomer mother and uncle are currently sharing responsibility for my grandmother. James and I are at this time caring for a mentally disabled sibling. The push is for a group home for the sister but how can she possibly be better off? Hard decisions.

Ah, Becca, none of this is easy! But this is one case where it would definitely be easier if extended families lived near one another. We have a dear friend whose Down Syndrome brother-in-law has been raised most lovingly at home, and is now, since his mother’s death, the greatest comfort and support to his bereaved father. And our friend’s parents spent most of their adult lives caring for his two mentally unstable siblings, at times setting them up in apartments, at times having them live at home, and at the most troubled times having them in group homes. I honor you and James for taking on the care of your sibling (I knew all along you were saints!). All the best to you, and to her, whatever your decision.

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