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Goats, gripes, and grasping for greatness
Being a Positive and Productive Member of Society 
7th-Apr-2011 02:00 pm
As I was growing up, I was on the receiving end of a lot of lectures on the meaning of adulthood, and goals for adulthood, and who and what I was going to be when I reached that magical transformation point of self-reliance and independence.

The basic standard lecture was that I should aim to be a "positive, productive member of society." The expanded lecture included such gems as "Knowing what you don't want to be when you grow up is just as important as knowing what you do." with the implication that we should go out and try things, and that quitting because we didn't like something was an ok reason. There was always my favorite line: "If you want to be a janitor, then be a good janitor." There was no minimum standard of type of occupation, simply a minimum standard for execution of that occupation's tasks. There was no excuse for being idle. There was no room for non-participation.

The basic statement from my parents was that there was (and is!) a great big world out there, and we were going to go out and help it to turn. As illogical as it was, there was a standing pledge from the parents that, if we got jobs and needed to live at home, Mom and Dad would help us out. However, the moment we graduated, if we didn't get into school, get a job, or become involved in some other gainful occupation, rent was $1000 per month. In short, idleness was inexcusable but all else was supportable with negotiation.

So now, my parents are working on their retirements. I have already had this discussion with both of them individually, but it looks like I'm going to have to go back and have it with Dad again. You cannot just retire from something. You have to retire to something. Sure, Dad retired to do chemo. Ok, fine. That's short-term, though. Once he is better and back on his feet, I expect him to do something with those feet and that attached brain. He needs to get a job teaching basic geology to freshmen, or editing scientific journals, or repairing model trains. He needs to volunteer at the library. He needs to start rolling his stones before they grow moss and sink into the sand. (Mom is still teaching a couple of nights a week and participating in conferences. She also joined a piano club and the church handbell choir. I think she is doing ok for both mental and physical interactions.)

Grandpa has complained multiple times - especially to Dad - that he's tired of living. He's done now, thanks. He's sick and tired and BORED. If it weren't for the fact that he is utterly and completely devoted to Grandma, he'd probably have stepped in front of a bus already. On one hand, I'm not all that sympathetic to his particular situation. He has nothing besides reading and TV to occupy his time because he won't leave Grandma's side, even though she does not need him to watch her sleep. On the other hand, he has very little mobility, and while his retirement home has every comfort you could want, it has no method for external contribution.

I think that one of the major failings of our modern society is that we do not have a place where our elderly can still contribute when they have passed into the final stages of physical frailty. Grandpa is still quite sharp, mentally. Unfortunately, he has so many physical barriers to social participation that it costs too much energy to get past those barriers in the first place. He can't be a contributing member of society any more, except socially, and even then only rarely and with high costs to the people around him, because of where and how he is living. He is a user of all services, and a contributor of none. This is not by choice. He still has plenty to share, but no practical way to share it.

As I've visited my parents and grandparents, the thoughts about how to deal with the challenges of aging and productive social participation are becoming louder. I can see that a part of the problem is being unwilling to venture out, to take on challenges, or to take risks. But I can also see that a part of the problem is remembering that anything is worth doing, so long as we do it well. Go back to the janitor example. Ok, so maybe Dad can't be a Little League coach. He could still be a reading tutor. It's not as exciting or glamorous, but it is certainly positive and productive.

So yes, the lessons were learned. I have only a vague idea of what I'm going to be when I grow up. But I have a good idea of what I'm going to do when I get there.

... in darkness, understanding
7th-Apr-2011 06:15 pm (UTC)
In high school retired boeing engineers would come in once a week to mentor the engineering club. It seemed really good for everyone involved. There should be more like that. (I want to find something like this for my grandfather.)

I suspect demographic pressure is on your side on this one.
7th-Apr-2011 06:19 pm (UTC)
I've been having similar problems trying to figure out how to come up with something Mom would find worthwhile.
7th-Apr-2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
Reading over his obit, my Grandfather retired around 30 years ago (he past at 90). I'm trying to imagine that long without having anything "to do". I know he did some stuff here or there.

It is why I jokingly say "I'll retire when they carry me out feet first" cause right now there isn't anything else I'd rather be doing that I'm qualified to do. Perhaps that'll change in a decade, we'll see.

I know my grandmother, who was in a facility, had lots of interesting adventures that could be planned, some of which were day trips, some not, and she too was of the "frail" nature. But she was also solitary, which provides some freedom in compensation.
7th-Apr-2011 07:56 pm (UTC)
I have so many outside interests that I'm sure I'd rather be doing something else.

Interesting adventures are a consumer product, but I appreciate the suggestion.
7th-Apr-2011 07:59 pm (UTC)
Heh, I forgot to put that caveat in there when I was writing it.

I've got my outside interests, but so many of them are now "people" focused, I'm not sure what they'll look like in 30-40 years. We'll see.
7th-Apr-2011 07:29 pm (UTC)
For your Grandpa, does he still have a decent speaking voice? Would he be willing to read books, newspapers, magazines out loud and record them while he sits by your Grandma's side? If so, he could still contribute, even in his own retirement home. I'm sure there are those who can't see well enough to read anymore and would love to hear interesting stories, articles and news each day.

I know there are services on the internet as well as through many communities. If there isn't one already at his home, maybe he could start one with some help.

Of course, your Dad can do this, too.
7th-Apr-2011 07:57 pm (UTC)
Your suggestion has merit. I wonder if there is a volunteer program there at his retirement facility? That's worth asking about. He LOVES to read.

Of course, it had better be a very easy system to use for recording. He doesn't know how to use a computer.
8th-Apr-2011 12:35 am (UTC)
Many services still use a simple tape recorder. Some of them loan out the tapes, some duplicate the original tape and give them away or sell them for a small amount, some broadcast them over a local, small power, radio station.
7th-Apr-2011 07:43 pm (UTC)
My parents are very, very good at this, which I am grateful for--it gives me a good role model, looking forward.
11th-Apr-2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
What a fascinating perspective. My parents also taught me this way of being and this philosophy of life through numerous anecdotes. I remember my mom telling me that she never wanted me to be a wall flower. She wanted me to excel and to do something with my life. She reminded me over and over again that passivity was something to be shunned: "don't wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it."

However, most notably, I learned the lesson of self reliance, and independence through hard times in high school and college. And, seeing my mom and dad struggle with the burden of their passive and dependent parents (my two grandmothers).

As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is good to know that I am not alone in some of my perspectives.
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