As Eldercare Comes Home

When not overshadowed by President Trump’s perfect Ukraine phone call, the national conversation in this Presidential election cycle pertains to higher education funding and healthcare.  But the issue that is approaching steadily from behind is how we’re going to manage our rapidly growing population of senior citizens.

Youngest and I sat before the television screen, watching and commenting upon the potential candidates during the fourth Democratic debate on October 15.  It was the usual back-and-forth and the only recurrent question between us was why in the hell is Beto O’Rourke still here?  But out of nowhere, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota caught my attention with her comments that apart from the two principal issues, who was paying attention to other pertinent topics, such as the rapid growth of the aged population in the United States – what she referred to as The Silver Surge.  Perhaps it’s that Minnesota has a significantly larger and growing elder population; next year, Minnesota’s 65-and-above age cohort will exceed the 17-and-younger cohort for the first time in their history and by 2030, more than 20% of Minnesotans will be senior citizens.  They aren’t as far along as Maine, thank you Jesus, but they are well on their way.

Klobuchar is right.  The almost complete absence of political conversation means that any meaningful programs moving forward will not pertain to the elderly; we will have to manage via programs cobbled together at the state and local levels.  The reality is that the onus will devolve down to the granular level of the family unit.  I purposefully stated that the issue is approaching from behind because the adult children in a society with a declining middle class are looking forward generationally, attending to the needs of their own families and children.  Kids are very squeaky wheels requiring investment in time and money and their parents will hear very little from their own elders about their conditions until there is a significant health event which knocks the axle off the elder truck.  It’s generally a two-way silence; the adult children are simply trying to keep things afloat and the elders say little out of pride, fear or shame.

So once again, it’s up to the family to work this out.  Our society has become so complex that inattention can have potentially catastrophic results personally, medically and financially.  The obvious question then is where do we even start?

The good news is that old age doesn’t just happen overnight, like – *POOF* – Mom’s suddenly old.  Aging is a continuum and while there’s always a downward trend, the slope is typically longer and shallower until there’s one or more medical events that sharpen the decline before culminating in death.  Perhaps the first question to answer then is where are your elders on the continuum?  Are they poster elders for Senior Olympics or are they already doddering around on gimpy legs with a laundry list of daily medications required for simple survival?  Even then, how is their condition mentally versus physically?  The body itself might be in decent shape for elderhood but Alzheimer’s, while severely affecting mental capacity, is a physical malady.

The question of location on the continuum is important.  Once you have a sense of that location, you can begin to consider some of the aspects that must be covered as they move forward along it and with that, a sense of the time and criticality with which these aspects must occur be addressed.

What are some of these aspects?

The Conversations.  American Elderhood can be aptly described as terra incognita for our society.  We’ve been obsessed with youth and uncomfortable with the concept and practice of dying.  Medical advances have pushed the envelope of lifespan so that the fastest growing demographics are our elders; and remember that there is not just one age cohort for the elderly.  But that increase hasn’t been correspondingly matched by either assets to financially support the longer lifespan or an increase in individual mental and physical capacity to support it either.  There have to be multiple conversations with them to help plan so that their waning days are as comfortable and meaningful as possible.  Given the complexity and emotional discomfort that can accompany such discussions for both elders and adult children, it’s entirely likely that these won’t be completed quickly.  The time to start having the conversations is sooner than later.

The Overwatch.  Is it possible to develop meaningful, yet discrete and respectful, tabs on how our elders are doing?  It’s been difficult to even find a term for this situation; surveillance is laden with negative connotations and is disrespectful to them, not to mention potentially counter-productive.  The difference between a declining elder and a kid is that a kid with an offended sense of pride can’t blind you by tearing up your HIPAA forms.

The Siblings.  Do you have siblings and what are their circumstances?  Are they geographically nearby and what is their relationship with both the elders and you?  How are the lines of communication and is there a delineation of responsibility?  Most importantly, are they willing to acknowledge elder wishes even if they might not be in agreement with them?

The Finances.  How aware are you of their finances and are they capable of handling them?  If you have to step in, are measures in place to allow it?

The Documentation.  There is a considerable amount of paperwork involved with the elderly and much pertains to assuring that their rights are protected, particularly as they become less able to care for themselves.  Everybody knows about wills, but do you know where your elders have theirs and is it accessible?  Is there paperwork granting Power of Attorney not just for financial matters but healthcare matters as well?  Do you have the appropriate clearance to speak with the potentially numerous medical providers?

The Allies.  The demands upon you will increase as your elders age and you will likely have to depend upon the assistance of others in the eldercare system.  Have they reached the point of requiring your attendance at appointments and who can get them there?  What if they have a pre-existing relationship with another professional, such as their own lawyer or financial adviser?  Do you have a go-to person for help in navigating a complex medico-legal eldercare system?

The Systems:  Healthcare and Housing.  You’ve likely been spending your time dealing with the kids and haven’t had to seriously consider the complexity, opacity and cost of the healthcare system and elder housing structure.  Getting a crash course in navigating them is frustrating and fraught with peril.  What exactly is the Doughnut Hole – yeah, that’s actually a thing – and why must your elder leave their continuing care retirement community for somewhere further away for skilled care?

The System:  End of Life.  Even if your parent has been clear about everything – communication, paperwork and documentation, final wishes – getting him or her to that point at which final wishes can be honored can be problematic.  Most of us have little experience with death and the confluence of physical and emotional factors can create an immensely stressful situation.  Is there clarity about what the final wishes are?  How do you contend with the potentially large number of specialists who might be called in because of multiple systemic failures?  What are the resources available to you?  What exactly is hospice and when is the best time to get them involved?

What’s the aftermath?

These various aspects itemize neatly, as though each was a Lego block that stacked and nestled neatly together in a self-supporting structure.  But the reality is that each aspect is more like a thread that would be woven among the other threads in a tapestry.  Each can dramatically impact another aspect for better or worse and how one works out can be dependent upon how well another aspect was addressed.

Caring for your elders – parents or grandparents – can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience and there are those who count it as a privilege.  But it can still be problematic and there are moments when you are likely to find yourself pushed and exhausted and at times, bereft.  Understand in those moments that you aren’t alone and if you’re able to look up, there will be moments of amazing grace emanating from circumstances and people that will pull you through.

Much of what that’s written moving forward will not necessarily be an exhaustive What to Expect When You’re Expecting type of guide to everything about aging.  But it will be framed extensively by the experiences of being involved with an aging parent with Dementia, including the missteps and miscues.  All of the aspects mentioned can be drawn directly from personal experience and to the extent possible, these experiences will touched upon so perhaps something of value can come from them.





Inventory Management on the Other End

It shouldn’t be this way, but a fair part of being a parent is inventory management as you try to work through all of the stuff that comes into the home.  You are fortunate if you have links to other families with growing kids and are able to save money by sharing hand-me-down clothing.  It’s a great thing but the down side is that you can’t control when it arrives and so you suddenly find yourself working through one or more bags to ascertain what might work.  This process also involves corralling a resistant child who would rather have a tooth extracted than try on clothing.  Dad, it fits, it fits already! kvetches the youngster as he edges towards the door in the hope of escape.  But the process slows as the kids grow and reach their expected height and sense of style and the push to manage the inventory diminishes.  There does come a time in middle age however, when the necessity to manage the inventory again grows and you find yourself handling boxes, bags and paperwork except that this time it’s on the other end of the age spectrum.

So precisely what do I mean by the other end?  If you have kids when you’re younger, the other end will be the kids as they come and go to college and you suddenly find the living room or garage again full of boxes and bags brought home from school for the summer as they have to vacate dorm rooms and campus apartments.  You turn around and Wham!, you’ve got a raft of debris filling the family space.  If you’ve had kids when you’re older, then the other end will consist not only of the kids returning but also the elders who are liable to be looking to lighten their own load.  About two years ago, my mother-in-law – actually a wonderful woman – showed up to visit and handed me a box of old tupperware containers with the comment This makes me happy, so just say thank you.  The saving grace in this little episode is that it was a ripple on the shore compared to the tsunami that arrived years ago when two elderly relatives on both sides of our family entered retirement facilities in the same summer, an event from which my garage has never fully recovered and has led to the requisite rental of a storage unit.  That summer’s nadir was the arrival of a one-horse plow fished at the last minute from the suburban backyard shed of an elderly grandmother, who had kept it out of a sentimental attachment to her North Carolinian farmer-father.  That it wound up at our house was a testament to the amount of items and the rapidity with which they had to be disposed.  My wife’s thought was just bring it north and we’ll figure out what to do with it.

Why go to the effort of trying to sort and manage it instead of just tossing it into a dumpster?  First, there is actually an emotional component to some of the items.  I began writing this article in my spare time three nights ago and last night, Eldest – now a college graduate – inquired about a half-completed quilt begun for her many years ago by her now-deceased great-grandmother.  It is presently wrapped and stored in our basement and I suspect that she’ll pull it and complete it herself.  But the other reality is that there are also heirloom and economic issues as well.  Our own children will become adults and anything that we can do to help get them established – and providing them with quality furniture checks off that box – is worth the effort.  They might not appreciate an heirloom solid cherry desk or bedroom suite now, but I expect that they will when they’re older and don’t have to fork over money for knock-off imported crap.  It’s not for nothing that we took in a 75 year old single owner Baldwin baby grand piano from a deceased family friend; Middle already loves the instrument and we’ve all agreed, even his siblings, that it will someday go to him when he is capable of taking it.  What that means for us is that we’ve had to rent a storage unit and take care of what and how we place furniture there in order to maintain it and prevent its ruin.  It also means an on-going review and debate of what we can and need to keep as we move forward. 

What are some of my criteria?

  • First, is there a story or something truly personal about it?  A hand-made wool Navaho blanket given as a wedding gift to my parents more than six decades ago…stays.  A half-completed quilt for a great-grandchild…stays.  A stack of blankets/towels/linens from Target…gone.
  • Is the item one that will actually have a perceptible use or value to myself or one of the kids within the next X number of years?  Toolbox full of old shipbuilding tools?  Gone.  Excellent condition baby grand piano?  Stays.
  • Is it better shared elsewhere if there’s historical or collectible value yet space is an issue?  Maybe that vintage Wehrmacht microscope with Zeiss optics and signed factory inspection papers is better served at a museum than in my attic (actually happened here).
  • In the alternative, can I better use the money from selling or donating it?
  • Can I properly store the item without causing it damage and would proper storage be cost-prohibitive?
  • Does my better half likewise agree with the decision?  If not, then it’s probably best to just suck it up and manage until the situation resolves itself either via change of circumstance or mind.
  • If you sit back and consider them, you’re likely to find that there are other decision criteria than what’s just listed above.  But the important thing is to understand that the time is likely to come when you’re going to be involved in helping to manage the inventory of elderly friends and relatives.  When it does, determine your criteria and then hew to it as closely as possible.

    Just what did happen to the horse-drawn hand plow?  After a few weeks sitting in the garage as we worked through the other items, my wife suggested that I contact a local state historical museum that specialized in early American agriculture and I did so, leaving multiple messages over several weeks with the director and receiving no response.  Several weeks after the last phone call, the plow went to the curb to the curiosity of neighbors and garbagemen.  Two weeks after that, the museum director called me back.

    But at least the plow was out of my garage.

    On Being Sandwiched

              As we were, so you are.

              As we are, so you will be.

                    – Sign in the crypt of the Capuchin Order, Rome, Italy

    You see some odd things as you travel and one of the oddest is the crypt of the Capuchin Friars in Rome.  It is a multi-room collection of the bones – some still full skeletons – of more than 3700 Capuchin Friars and others, assembled in various displays that in some ways are morbidly artistic.  The captioned quote is on a sign in one of the rooms and serves as a graphic reminder to the tourist of the fleeting nature of life.  I saw the sign during a family vacation several years ago and noticing it served as the cherry on a thoroughly bizarre day.  But the full import was lost on me until I became sandwiched between the youngsters and an elderly parent.

    For most people, life is a Bell Curve and the plateau for the total person – mental, physical, emotional – is typically reached during middle age.  When you have kids, you’re at or near the top of your game and can focus on raising them, bringing them along and preparing them for their own adulthood.  It is hard work, as the Wall Street Journal noted in a groundbreaking article some years agoseriously, when I first read the article years ago, I actually looked at the title and exclaimed “well, duh” – and when you have more than one young child, the work explodes on a seemingly exponential level.  But that work is also played out against a backdrop of anticipation, hope, love and at times, pure joy.  But there will come a time when the Bell Curve starts to slope downwards and while you are still approaching, at, or near the plateau, your own parents will start to descend that slope.  The parent’s decline can be gradual and it certainly doesn’t occur across all the phases – mental, emotional, physical – of the person.  But there can and probably will come a time when there’s a break in the elder parent’s descent and it goes beyond the capacity of one or both parents to manage it in the moment.  Falls that once would have left a bruise now leave a break and if the parent is sufficiently elderly, the break can create a cascade effect flowing further to the downside.  Middle-aged moments of forgetting what you needed from upstairs become senior moments of forgetting to turn off a gas range or even where you live when you take a walk.  These are the situations that bring the phone calls soliciting help from the elders and lead to an entirely new dimension of adulthood:  parenting your own parent.

    The slang term for the situation is being sandwiched because of the pressure that’s felt from being responsible for both sides.  While it makes sense on one level, it’s also deceptive.  What’s really happening is that you’re simultaneously being stretched as the demands of each surrounding generation pull you in one direction and then in another.  If you’ve waited to have children until you’re older, then the stretch is even more pronounced as you might find yourself visiting both pediatrician and geriatrician in the same week.  Trying to juggle making an appointment for the kid with the work schedule?  Now toss in having to make an appointment for your infirm father and the tension from the stretch becomes palpable.  As the American family has gone nuclear and mobile, creating physical distance between the adult generations, the response has been a budding growth industry for assisting the elderly when the adult children are absent.  The elderly with sufficient assets can enter full-spectrum retirement communities able to meet their needs as they age; the parents can purchase a cottage and if and when the need arises, they can then shift to an apartment and later, be assured of a bed in assisted-living or skilled care.  Want to stay at home?  Purchase a chairlift for the stairs or modify the bathtub to account for increasing issues with balance.  Hire a person to come visit for periods of time to combat the cumulative effects of isolation upon the mental faculties. 

    There’s a downside to this however and my wife noted it, in of all places, a commercial for  The gist of the commercial was that another market segment for discount travel was for those who needed to get to elderly relatives quickly and inexpensively, because emergencies don’t allow the luxury of planning six months ahead for the best rates.  In the commercial, an elderly woman was hiring someone to do repair work and the contractor was then coaxing her out of her social security number.  That came on the heels of a recent phone conversation between my wife and her own mother, who’d related how an upset elderly neighbor had visited, frustrated that she had allowed herself to divulge her bank account information and number to an unknown person on the phone.  This isn’t to necessarily imply that all businesses oriented towards the elder market are shady, because they aren’t.  But it is a real and added concern for the adult children because they don’t want to see their parents manipulated and gulled.

    There is a common factor amongst the previous two paragraphs and it’s one of which I am highly mindful as I look ahead:  assets.  We’ve predicated our family structure and society upon a model that requires assets for optimal performance.  Americans are living longer and encountering aging issues that didn’t exist before simply because people died before they could reach the point at which the issues became relevant in the aggregate.  But the American family isn’t in the same situation as it was during our grandparent’s generation.  The costs of healthcare and higher education are disproportionately higher relative to family income than two decades ago, yet the family and individual now must bear a greater burden than before…and on a family income that is, in the aggregate, declining.  The private assets simply aren’t there to support such a model for more than another generation and it’s already leading to generational warfare between the likes of AARP and the Millenials as squabbling begins for the allocation of public assets.  While raising children can bring the emotions of anticipation, hope and joy, what I honestly feel as I look forward isn’t tension, but foreboding.  On a personal level, is this something I can expect?  Debility and dementia?  Frustration and fear because I might be increasingly incapable of navigating a technological system that’s opaque to an elder American for its complexity?  Hell, I have difficulty figuring out the new smartphone already…what’s going to happen when I’m three-quarters deaf and expected to walk through an automated phone registration system for some program or another?  As my late grandmother used to say, being old ain’t for sissies.

    That leads to the last aspect of being stretched.  The model for aging in America will have to change and as we grope our way forward to whatever that new model is going to be, it’s incumbent upon me to figure out how to model an appropriate behavior upon which my own children can draw as they move into adulthood.  My own parents dealt with their parents from a nuclear family’s distance of 225 miles, although one parent had a sibling nearby to her mother.  Until the bitter end, it was managed via phone calls and the occasional visit to handle business and it’s not terribly far removed from the way that many of their peers managed as well.  But the stresses of American society are such that it’s not so operative anymore and it will be better for all involved if the kids are more closely attuned to their parents’ situation, even if they aren’t necessarily living down the street.  How often can I make medical appointments?  How do I honor a parent’s desire for independence and yet assure safety for the parent and others?  What arrangements must I make if I’m responsible yet want to take a week vacation with the family?  How do I manage my own frustrations as ancient issues resurface after decades of living on my own as an adult?  What must I do to prepare so that I can be on good relations and make their own way easier as they eventually move into this role?

    I’m a parameters guy.  I don’t believe that there’s any one perfect way of addressing any situation.  You determine the parameters within which you have to work and then figure out a mechanism that’s best for the given set of parameters and even then, it’s not going to be perfect.  But I’m mindful that the parameters within which our country has operated are changing and doing so rapidly and that simply is creating additional pressure because we’re now in the position of not just being sandwiched between generations, but being sandwiched between systems.

    Managing the Decline

    We live in an increasingly gender-neutral society as customary roles continue to change, in some ways slowly and in some ways, not.  We’re now more than two decades into the stay-at-home-dad scenario and it’s gone from a notable phenomenon to a far more widespread and mundane situation.  If you aren’t certain about that, pay attention to that faithful barometer of social change, the television commercial.  We’ve moved from the standard means-well-but-clueless-in-the-household-Dad across a broad range of products to considerably more commercials where Dad is actively engaged in managing the household and interacting with the kids.  The former still exists but it’s not as prevalent as it once was.  But as this continues to progress, men had better get used to the fact that there’s liable to be a point in their middle-aged lives when they’ll not only be responsible for managing the rise of their children but also the decline of their parents.

    There are most certainly cultural influences.  China’s society is one in which the son is responsible for the ultimate care of the parents and that – coupled with their long-standing one child policy – has led to a profound imbalance in the male/female ratio as newborn girls were given up for adoption so that the parents could have another shot at having a son.  But American culture has historically been predicated upon the daughter having principal responsibility for the care of her aging parents.  The model with which we’ve been familiar through our lives has been, until relatively recently, one in which the man worked and the woman was responsible for the household responsibilities and that extended to caring for their aging parents.  It’s been stretched considerably with the rise in mobility and the nuclear family, and even further by the movement of the woman into the workplace.  This has been offset by the growth of local and state government programs to provide increased assistance for the elderly and the great majority, if not all, of American counties have some semblance of an Office of Aging to act as a portal to the panoply of programs designed for the aging American.  But we’re now at a new point in American history in which the promises made to all of the various layers and segments of our society are far outstripped by the resources available to meet them; the former Comptroller General under Presidents Bush and Clinton, David Walker, recently noted that the actual federal debt is triple what is reported due to the unfunded liabilities taken on by the government.  These unfunded liabilities would include especially the promises made to the elder generation – Social Security – and Medicare.  It is simply unsustainable.

    While there are going to be increasing concerns and issues about the funding, the costs of providing care to an aging population continue to mount.  These costs are not at an outrageously disproportionate rate like college tuition, but they are increasing slowly and steadily and having an impact upon the family.  According to a report published by Genworth Financial, the median hourly rate for a homemaker service worker – who assists with non-medical and “hands-off” activities for the elderly and can help to maintain their independence – is $20 and the five year compounded rate of 1.61%.  Note that this is for the most basic assistance available to an elderly person and has the lowest rate of cost growth.  When you reach the higher levels of care, such as a semi-private nursing home room, the cost has risen over the past five years by a compounded rate of 3.57%.  And that cost is not being borne solely by the elder and the governmental programs.  A survey of more than 1400 households involved in caregiving for an elder found that fully 46% of those households were spending more than $5000 annually in their funds to assist their elders.  So once again, costs are increasing and the sandwiched generation is being pulled from yet another direction.  Paul Krugman can wax eloquently about existential American despair in the op-ed pages of the Times, but this type of issue goes to the heart of the matter.  The American middle class is beset not only by decreasing incomes on one side, but increasing costs and responsiblities on the other as more costs are offloaded back to them.  This middle class generation was raised in a particular environment – employers with a set of benefits, a belief in the value of education, and an activist government – and they’re watching it vanish as costs are shifted back to them and most importantly, their children.  Healthcare benefits?  Higher tuition?  Jobs that enable their children to take their own place as productive adults?  Nope to all of that.  And when you consider that the writing is on the wall for future government spending, then there’s really nothing existential about it.

    So what does this mean going forward?  An understanding that the old model of following the job and then monitoring the elders from a distance and managing via a cobbled-together network won’t be as operative as it once was.  State and local programs will be constrained and there’s a greater likelihood that the facilities available to help care for invalided parents will be less than optimal and perhaps, households will shift to more of an integrated and intergenerational model with the elders close by to assist with the children and in turn be assisted by their children and growing grandchildren as they become increasingly infirm.  My own perspective is also framed by an understanding that even if we don’t realize it, our children are watching us and taking their lessons from our actions and inactions alike.  That means that I try to model a more hands-on and involved approach with my own parent, even if the roles are increasingly reversed and frustrating in their own way.  If we can’t – and honestly shouldn’t – look to government and the private sector to handle everything, then we have to be prepared to step in and manage ourselves as best as we are able.  And if the parents are ultimately living longer, then the simple truth is that the men are going to have to move beyond their comfort zone and take on the additional burdens because their own mates are going to be similarly pressed; but if men can take on the kids – and we are most certainly able – then we can likewise take on the elders.

    Kids and the Public Use of Cellphones

    Tonight was an interesting evening since my better half and I had dinner at the restaurant at which both Eldest and Middle work.  The fact that they literally work side by side as head hostess and host is fascinating enough as she will be training him, but when they were out of sight doing their jobs, I took the opportunity to watch the other diners; I am a natural observer spawned by spending childhood vacation evenings seated on boardwalk benches because my folks wouldn’t pay for ride tickets.  But what grabbed my attention was visual proof of the cellphone spread discussed in multiple newspaper and magazine articles.

    Across the way from our outside table was a large group of almost a dozen people, mixed between girls in their mid-teens and middle-aged men.  I’m 99.999% certain that they were father/daughter combinations but knowing that there’s a large swingers group that meets for a monthly social hour at this restaurant – and boy howdy, ain’t that an educational conversation with the kids – I’ll hold the .001% in reserve.  What was notable however was the prevalence of smartphones and cellphones in active use amongst the group and not just among the girls.  The girls would share their smartphones back and forth, taking selfies and ostensibly trolling the web as they waited.  But I was surprised to see multiple adults also pull their devices to answer and/or make calls, or likewise swipe their screens.  It’s not uncommon for large groups seated in restaurants to break into smaller conversational nodes because the ambient noise makes it difficult for one end of the table to hear the other, but this scene was played out amongst other tables which had far fewer diners.  It was honestly depressing to see people turn away from one another to answer texts or swipe screens to follow whatever on the available wi-fi network.

    So how does affect the family and kids?  There have certainly been moments in our household when any one of us – and even Youngest now has a basic phone – has reached into a pocket to glance at something incoming; it happened to me yesterday in a meeting.  But that’s a function of the press of other responsibilities and commitments and even teens with jobs and activities have them.  But pulling out the phone to glance and then replacing it isn’t the same thing as the wholesale process of ignoring your table companions, a tacit insult if ever there was one.  We’ve been clear since kids’ cell phones were first introduced into the house that they had no place at the family dinner table and we’ve tried to hold the line on that, even if one of them still will periodically pull it out to respond quickly to something that’s incoming.  It’s an ongoing and chronic occurrence but at least it’s not a wholesale conversation and when a comment is made about it, there’s no rancorous response.  I know of families who require that all cell phones be removed before dinner in order to maintain balance and assure that there’s an opportunity to engage in even a short period of uninterrupted conversation, free of distraction.  The flip side to this is that you have to be willing to purposefully put away your own device so that you’re abiding by the rule as well.  There have been moments in my parenting experience when I’ve responded to but you don’t follow that rule with the I’m your father, I don’t always have to response but it seems to me that this is one of those rules that should be universally respected.  The sole exceptions in the household are my Better Half, who is a physician and subject to any number of situations requiring immediate attention and the common awareness of everyone that there’s an illness in a member of the extended family, particularly the elderly relatives.  If those aren’t operative however, then the usual reminder is to put the devices away.

    There’s value in upholding the rules about cellphones here.  There’s tremendous value in knowing how to hold and maintain a conversation with another person as well as like value in being able to follow a thought process without distraction.  The challenges facing our country are numerous, deep and varied and if the kids aren’t capable of thinking with clarity, depth and focus, then the situations will grow insoluble, at least in a manner that’s satisfactory to a democracy with a functioning constitution.

    Re-setting the Home Page

    As schools across the country struggle with budget issues, the majority are looking squarely at one line item for control – paper.  So information is now being made available via other means and it’s probably in your best interest to reset the browser’s home page to the school district website.  Kids still come home from school on the first day with a backpack full of paperwork and parents are used to sitting down and culling through the chaff to get to those single pieces of wheat which really do concern them, but it’s afterwards that the paper usage is being truly controlled to save money.  The upshot is that if you expect to see the information in the kids’ backpacks, then you’re liable to miss something important.

    It was at a different event the other evening that someone shared a statistic that her spouse had picked up at a local school district staff meeting: if the district could cut it’s paper cost by 10%, the savings would be sufficient to fund the salaries and benefits of two additional teachers.  So the hunt for eliminating paper usage continues in an era of budgetary constraints and it’s showing up here – or not, actually – in the household.  School calendars sent to each household with a full complement of activities and events?  Gone.  Paper reminders from advisers?  Gone.  School planners for each student?  Actually not, since the much-smaller and less costly planner was a train-wreck for kids who don’t have the capacity to write in very small print; this led to the re-introduction of the older and larger planners.  If the schools are going to stress planning skills, then they have to at least give them something with which to work and the less-costly alternative was simply not functional.

    The godsend however, is that the information is now being made available online and readily available, provided that the parents are willing to keep up with it.  Site tabs lead to school lunch menus and athletic calendars, directories and a full gamut of district policies.  Student and district achievements are touted routinely.  But the real value of putting the district site on the browser homepage is in those announcements that make you appreciate the heads up, such as the announcement that Youngest’s school would be the site for after-school SWAT team training.  Had I not seen the article yesterday morning, I would have been mightily surprised when one of Youngest’s friends told me last night that the SWAT team was there during his after-school football practice, a tragic training necessity given the times in which we live. 

    So for the next number of years, the browser’s home page will be set to the school district’s site and the only question will be with what is it replaced when we’ve finally got the kids through the educational pipeline.  And for Middle, who might read this: whatever it is, it won’t be AARP.

    Traveling With the Kids:  IG2BTK Tour 2014


    It’s Good to Be The King.

    The site’s been silent recently since we just returned yesterday from a two week trip to Europe – Paris, London and Edinburgh – which was dubbed the It’s Good to Be The King 2014 tour.  This is the follow-up to the family’s 2011 European Collapse tour (here and here).  Just as I found that traveling with children changes as they age, it continues to change as they work their way through the teen years (Eldest is no longer a teen and Youngest might as well be for what it’s worth).  I clearly remember when traveling with kids meant assuring that there were sufficient diapers and plenty of activities planned to make the physical aspect of traveling easier for the youngsters.  But that’s progressed and while I love traveling with the family, there are moments when the changes are jarring. 

    So what’s worth noting with the teens and nascent adult?

    • Make sure that the kids understand that if breakfast is included in the cost of the room, then they’d better take advantage of the "free food" instead of sleeping in and then looking for a lunch because they’re hungry.  For that matter, make sure that the kids understand the difference between a continental breakfast – the serve yourself available at places such as Hampton Inn – and what is referred to as an english breakfast, which is prepared by a cook and brought by staff for an additional charge.  Likewise, keep water bottles refilled so that you don’t have to spend money needlessly on water.
    • Make sure that they understand that they are clearly prey for any number of grifters and beggars.  Paris was loaded with gypsies at public sites who approached with request for petition signatures; the catch was that if you signed the petition, you’d receive small useless token as thanks and a demand for money to pay for said token.  I first learned this schtick in New York City last year after signing a petition for some Buddhist about his temple.  He gave me some meaningless fabric flower petal and demanded $20 and when I refused, it got…unpleasant.  I’m fortunate that my paternal male line has a recessive asshole gene for such moments.  The kids learned to simply repeat no and keep on walking.
    • Press personal security.  Men’s wallets should be shifted to the front pocket and women’s purses should be held with the strap over the shoulder and the zipper compartment secured.  Since I carry a backpack during the travels, I kept it slung over the shoulder with the zippers secured towards the front so that they were near the hand grasping the strap in order to thwart anyone who might try to unzip it from the rear.
    • Make sure that the kids know what to expect from the weather and can pack accordingly, and likewise for any special events planned that might require better dress.  Since the last stop on the tour was Edinburgh, Scotland, I checked the expected weather in advance and found that the mid-June averages were a full 20 degrees less than here, akin to a mid-Spring day instead of summer.  Also decide whether you trust them to pack without a physical luggage check or if you just want to run through a checklist prior to departure.  The kids are old enough now that if they choose to ignore common sense in clothing choices, they can suffer well if they’re chilly. 
    • Expect moments of cognitive dissonance since the kids are now growing and are capable of far more than they were younger.  This was personally the case with Eldest, who is well into college and could legally order alcohol at meals.  Our traveling philosophy is that the kids should experience the local culture as much as possible but within the bounds of legality and this especially goes to the issue of alcohol.  What is the legal drinking age where you’re at?  It was 16 in Italy, so Eldest could have an occasional beer or wine at dinner during the Collapse tour in 2011 while Middle could only share ours.  But it’s 18 in France, England and Scotland and the wait staff throughout was assiduous in carding, so Eldest could again order at dinner – and not occasionally – while Middle was again stuck sharing ours.  My only caveat with Eldest was that she have something that wasn’t usually available here so if you’re going to have a beer, make sure that it isn’t a Budweiser.  The dissonance also struck in handling the processes since Eldest was much quicker in figuring out the Paris metrocard machines than I was, leading to an apology to her for being brusque because I couldn’t believe that she had it down quicker than me.
    • Security goes beyond the physical and to the cyber aspect as well.  Kids should be aware that while they can certainly share with their friends, such a prolonged trip isn’t something to be announced via Facebook or another social networking platform where literally anybody – and if the kid has more than 500 "friends", it’s anybody – can see that the house is wide open for pillaging and/or epic parties. 
    • Use any opportunity available for teaching the kids, whether it’s about politics, economics, history or simply life.  Our accommodations in London were a classic mix of the sixth level of Dante’s Inferno and John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and as satisfying as yelling would be, I was cognizant that the kids were watching.  So the lessons were twofold:  first, that the person in front of you is liable to not be the person responsible for your dilemma so yelling is probably harmful since you become the enemy instead of the wronged customer; second, that you need to have a plan and know what you actually want when you find that one responsible party. Talk about the situation and pick it apart with the kids, and then share the results of any actions or conversations with them.  In other words, plan, execute and then do a post-mortem on the situation. 
    • Teach the kids to double-check that what they’ve purchased is actually what’s wrapped up by the sales staff.  Twice this trip, my wife and I found that items that we thought we were purchasing weren’t what actually came out of the package.  My wife was more upset since she was purchasing silk scarf whereas I was bringing home a bottle of scottish whiskey and cream.  I’ll certainly see through my disappointment, but it might not be as easy for a ten-year old who had her heart set on a special something.

    One of our principal family values is the exposure to other cultures and we’ll continue to travel as the opportunities arise – or we make them.  But all things change and the nature of the family vacation does as well with the aging and maturing of the kids.  Carpe diem.


    The Sandwiched Generation

    After a few rocky decades for the American father, things – as least as I can tell in the media barometer – seem to be leveling out.  We’ve gone from the tasteless Al Bundy and Homer Simpson to more functional father-models as demonstrated in NBC’s Parenthood and ABC’s Castle.   Television commercials show fully functional Dads overseeing bedtime activities and homework, as well as managing laundry.  A recent survey found that men are taking a far greater role in grocery shopping and cooking, a byproduct of more women working, fewer employment opportunities and greater interest spurred by the Food Network (a much-watched network on our television).  But all of that’s now happening on one end of the age spectrum, fathers and kids.  As these younger men age and the kids grow, the increasing family responsibility will begin to show itself on the other end of the age spectrum as they become responsible for one or both of their parents; they will be taking on what was historically taken on by the women in American society.

    The pace of my writing since the Spring – steady, but not prolific to begin with – has slowed considerably in the past few months.  Part of this can be attributed to the activities and presence of kids home from school as well as the completion of years-long backyard reclamation projects.  But what also took up considerable time was the reality that I was now officially a part of the sandwich generation; that phase in life in which I was not only responsible for the care of kids but also the care and oversight of an elderly parent.  Because I live much closer to that parent than my sister and my schedule is more flexible, the bulk of the oversight has fallen to me.  It’s an experience which I never considered having to do, but then again, most of my adult life has been spent in an alternative route that was inconceivable in my youthful ambitions.  On a societal level however, it’s also new because the onus of caring for the aging parents has fallen to the women, whether they be daughter or daughter-in-law.  The sons have typically deferred to the women because the matters fall to the purview of home management, a woman’s role and one in which most men felt utterly incompetent.  But that too, is going to have to change in several ways.

    First, roughly the past three American generations – three 20 year generational spans, dating back to 1950 – have lived and been raised in the nuclear family model of parents and their immediate children, sans grandparents.  That model broke onto the American scene in the early part of the 20th century with increasing industrialization and the rapid growth of the transport network, which allowed adult children to move for a supportable wage living with the knowledge that they could more easily get back to their own aging parents if necessary.  By the 1950s, the nuclear family was the standard model and one that worked for the country as the nation’s superpower status provided expanded economic opportunity.  My own upbringing was spent four hours away from where my own parents were raised, and my experience with extended family usually consisted of a semi-annual trek to the western part of the state to listen to my mother and her three siblings semi-playfully trashtalk one another around the evening poker table.  If and when things with the grandmothers were problematic, much could be handled via local relatives, the social services network via phone and a trip westwards to tie up loose ends.  I say grandmothers because the grandfathers did what men of that time did, die at a much earlier age, early enough that I neven met either of them. 

    This leads to the second point, which is the present disparity between the age of retirement and the age of death.  In 1950, when the nuclear family truly took flight, the average person retired at 67.3 years of age but the average age at death was 68.2 yearsCongratulations, here’s your watch for years of faithful service.  Now figure out who gets it because you’ve got about a half-year ’til you get to pass that l’il beauty on.  By 2000, the average person’s retirement age was 61.5 years and age at death, 77 years.  Congratulations, here’s your watch for years of faithful service.  Don’t sweat who gets it because you’ll probably have to replace it once before you die.  In three generations, we’ve gone from a retirement span of less than six months to more than 16 years – and the most recent comparable statistics for retirement age are thirteen years old – so there’s more time that the parents have to decline in their capabilities than existed in 1950.  Medicine has progressed sufficiently that people can live for prolonged periods with conditions and diseases that would have simply killed them in 1950.  Geriatrics, the final frontier…

    The third point is well known, the simple economic differences between the now retiring boomers and their 1950 peers.  The elderly are not a monolithic block, but composed of separate groups with their own generational experiences and economics.  The predecessors viewed Social Security as a supplemental income to their own savings, and many of them had pension plans that didn’t have the investment timeframes facing today’s surviving pension plans.  For a relatively period of time, they were financially comfortable before disease simply swept them away.  Today’s boomers grew up consuming instead of saving and for them, Social Security is a primary source of income instead of a supplemental source. There’s now a growing awareness of the pending shortfall in the Social Security program as America ages, and there are alternatives being batted around funding solutions.  But these would be unpopular with the wealthier citizenry and given the status of power due to wholly ineffective campaign financing regulations, passage of such measures is problematic. 

    This leads to the fourth point, which is the availability of resources to assist the elderly.  My parent has sufficient assets to permit living in what is comparable to a top-tier independent living community that provides for all levels of care, from independent apartments and cottages through assisted living to skilled care for end-of-live issues.  But this parent is a Depression-era child with that generation’s sensibilities of want and deprivation leading to a savings ethos to supplement the then-extant pensions.  The description of life there that I hear indicate a few problems on the horizon as their clientele dies and is replaced by younger occupants; remember that the elderly are not as monolithic as AARP would like you to believe.  Apartments now seem to be unoccupied for a longer period before being sold again, and empty apartments can now be rented to residents’ guests for short-term stays.  The food is still top-notch, but there’s an increasing use of chicken for protein and the once-monthly Prime Rib night is a memory.  Because it’s located in a rural area, the executive chef arranges for bulk purchase of greens and fruits from local farmers and seasonally, capable elderly volunteer to go to the cafeteria to help clean and prepare the produce by snapping beans or husking ears of corn. 

    So the younger elders aren’t as financially prepared as their predecessors.  The burden for the increased care falls upon the social net established over the past several decades by state and federal governments with a correspondingly larger demand upon the budget; but if the budget is constrained, then the result is that there’s fewer dollars per elderly recipient.  If the budget is cut, then the result is an even fewer amount of money per elderly recipient.  With deficits running in the range of $1 Trillion annually and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare comprising the lion’s share of that budget, is there any real doubt that there’s going to have to be a significant restructuring of the programs?  Where else will the elderly be able to turn? 

    There are several things that already are – or will – come from this.

    • The average retirement age will rise, if it hasn’t already started to do so, as seniors defer retirement and remain in the workforce.  This puts pressure on the younger generations as there are fewer supportable wage jobs that permit the younger to leave their own parents’ houses and start their own households. 
    • The retirement center model, such as my parent’s, is a damaged concept as fewer elderly will be available to buy into them.  Fewer full service retirement communities will be built and those existing will have to either find new ways to deliver existing services or eliminate some of those services entirely.
    • There will be increased antagonism between the younger generations and the elderly as each begins to fight for existing resources.  I honestly don’t anticipate that the media will make an effort to downplay the hostility and some will even spur it since bad news and controversy sell.  Understand that there’s already some hard feelings by young adults because of the manner in which the Boomer generation has managed resources and parenting; this has the potential to harden those feelings even further by a considerable degree.
    • There has to be a wholesale renegotiation of the social contract between generations.  The younger have to recognize that the elderly do require assistance while the elderly have to be willing to manage on less in order to give the youngsters their own opportunities to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

     It’s common to refer to those who fought and won the Second World War as The Greatest Generation.  But each generation has it’s own demon with which to contend and this restructuring of our programs and resources – and the accompanying pain which it will incur – will be the demon for our youngsters.  My suspicion and my hope is that future generations will refer to our youngsters as The Greatest Generation, not for war, but for the sacrifices that they were forced to make to assure that all – including their foolish, selfish Boomer parents – received the care that they required. 

    Dads and Grocery Shopping

    There’s been a spate of recent articles (here and here) about how men are doing more of the shopping and the cooking.  There are other articles out there since things were spurred on by a research firm faxing poll results to various media outlets, but you get the drift.  Several of the articles even mention that some of these men are fathers who do most, if not all, of the cooking and one article even shows a young father carrying his preschool daughter in his arms as he rolls the cart down the aisle.  Which leads to the topic at hand, what are some things to remember if you go grocery shopping with the kid(s)?

    Having been the stay-at-home since Eldest’s birth (she’s now in college) and with others at intervals back through elementary school, I’ve been the one who’s trotted through the grocery aisles across the years.  The majority of those years have required that I take one or more kids in tow and for several, all of them were along for the excursion; what are some things to remember and consider when the kids are along at the store?

    • Understand that your child is now a living, crying, potentially bleeding egg timer that’s set to ring when the patience is exhausted.  Having a plan and list is crucial since your freedom to browse is now as limited as the attention span of a Labrador Retriever on meth; planning is crucial for both economic and behavioral issues.  What do you need to buy and where is it located?
    • Before you even leave the house, consider how much has to be accomplished and whether it can even be accomplished in the framework of your child’s body clock.  Children require structure and that means a nap for most kids age three or younger so trying to accomplish a large shopping trip immediately after lunch is setting up for unpleasantries as the child simply tires and becomes unable to handle waiting in the cart.  Even kids who no longer nap still tire and are subject to the stresses of the late afternoon witching hour when their energy ebbs and they become crankier and less patient.  For me, late afternoon grocery trips were minimal and solely for emergent reasons (dammit, I thought that I had that…); some shopping was simply done in the evening by myself because it was obvious that one or more of the kids was not able to handle it that day.
    • Set the stage for the behavior by stating your expectations prior to even entering the store.  Talk to your toddler about what’s going to happen and gently let him know what you want to see in terms of behavior; you can also let him know the consequences of misbehavior which is important if you employ the three-count method of discipline (which I still do even today, to the kids’ general annoyance, because it continues to work).
    • Understand that distraction is as good as discipline for keeping small children in line.&nbsp: Eldest had a toy phone that beeped and Middle had a keyring with useless keys, each of which was kept in a pocket for the moment that their patience began to wear thin.
    • Consider the shopping experience with your child to be an excellent teaching opportunity, particularly when they’re preschoolers.  The grocery store is a great place to work on colors, shapes and names of items when they’re very little and counting when they’re a bit older.  How many yellow bananas are there?  One, two, three…
    • Let the kids help as they age; you can even turn it into a game by asking them to find certain things with prizes for reaching a certain number correct.  That said, don’t send preschoolers to the other side of the store for that item that you forgot…
    • Make a conscious decision whether or not good behavior will be rewarded with a physical treat, such as a donut.  On the one hand, you can argue that good behavior is simply expected and shouldn’t be rewarded as though it was out of the norm but on the other hand, can you really turn down the opportunity for a shared donut?
    • Understand that you’re going to be multi-tasking and that the intensity of the multi-task will rise with the number of children along for the jaunt.  Expect to be tired when it’s finished and don’t be surprised if your patience is tested.
      • Shopping for groceries and cooking is just one aspect of how men are continuing to step up and take a greater role in the family just as women have stepped up to take a greater role in the work force.  The experience of taking the kid(s) can be a challenge and a great shared experience and the difference between good and bad will depend upon what you expect and what you do to prepare.  Once men are more fully established in the kitchen and store, it’s only going to be some years longer until they’re also taking more responsibility for the housework.

    Traveling with Aging Kids

    It used to all be on the mothers, but even involved fathers are now used to all of the work – preparatory and otherwise – that comes with traveling with kids.  What isn’t always obvious is how things change as the kids age and the awareness can creep up on you, smacking you in the head with the figurative lead pipe.  This was the occurrence on a recent Christmas holiday trip to Washington, DC.

    Some things are the same and I’ve adapted them over the years.  First is the purely preparatory logistical work that the little kids will never notice and about which they’ll absolutely never care.  But as the kids grow over the years, the preparations are adapted by first involving them – flush all of the toilets and lock all of the windows, empty all of the trash and get it to the garbage cans, find the cats before short trips so that they’re not locked in a room for three days – and then asking to be responsible for certain jobs.  It doesn’t relieve me of the responsibility to oversee their own tasks, but it does make things easier.  By the afternoon of our departure over the holiday, I made it a point to stand there amidst the kids and orally recite the list of items.  It didn’t mean that they’d automatically remember it, but it was one of those osmotic processes that the kids should take in through repetition over the years.  Mail stopped.  Windows locked.  Dog kenneled and cats accounted for.  Trash emptied…and so on.  It’s a process that helps me and hopefully teaches the kids that these good things only come with preparation.

    Second is the status of the family vehicle.  Are the tires alright and headlights okay, or are we driving a padiddle? It’s not something that I generally do with the kids, but the obvious one is whether the gas tank is full.  The working definition of stupid in my wife’s family is to run out of gas, especially because there’s a gauge to tell you the status.  The kids are involved in cleaning out the vehicle of old debris and stuff so that it’s neat, clean and ready for a fully new load of debris and stuff. 

    Whether traveling overseas or not, safety issues matter although the presence of cell phones makes things easier.  What’s the rally point in the event that everybody’s separated?  Have the kids without – and even with – cellphones learned the phone numbers by heart?  Do they remember the name of where we’re staying and the area in which it’s located?  It matters if you’re staying at a hotel chain and there are multiple hotels in the area.  Are you wearing something that’s easily identifiable to them, such as a colored cap?  They’ll willingly wear identically colored clothing when younger but you’re liable to catch some blowback as they age and balk at bilious pink sweatshirts carrying the family reunion announcement. 

    What did bother me was that we had to negotiate wake-up times with the teens, whose body clocks are apparently set to Manila time.  We could certainly say that we’d be moving at a particular early time – say 9 AM for them – but the reality is that it’s difficult for kids and teens to simply shift their bedtime and rising routines without some consequence; our response is to simply accept that we’ll be moving a little later than the earlybirds.  Other parents are free to disagree accordingly.  What wasn’t negotiable however, was that once they were moving, they weren’t to spend their time tethered to Facebook or the cellphone; if they just want to dither electronically, they can do it at home for free.  The additional factor was that Youngest is still years away from the teen years and still arises earlier.  He consequently got to stroll downtown DC with me and see things that his slumbering siblings missed, such as the construction of Presidential Inaugural Viewing Stand and the National Christmas Tree, albeit in the early morning. 

    There’s an explicit understanding in our household that traveling means that you’re going to not only see the local sites, but also eat the local food.  It seems odd, but America is now so culturally homogenous that many kids think of vacation as an opportunity to eat at Applebees or go to the resident mall to shop and these prospects are everywhere.  My job in preparing for the trip was to handle the itinerary – my wife handled the accomodations – in such a way that everybody got something of value.  The planning was open with the kids and the thought process involved was open as well.  It’s Christmas in DC and while we’re staying in a hotel, the Smithsonian is a superb range of museums and it’s free, so like it.  If you want to go the National Zoo, what’s the weather forecast and on what day does that make sense?  What food is endemic to the DC vicinity?  Surprisingly, I opted for Thai on one evening and the next was a visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl.  Part of the thought process was to also have some conversation with them about history and culture, and how something as simple as a restaurant could reflect the personality of an area. 

    Change happens and I like it, it keeps me fresh.  But change is best when some thought is given to it in advance so that it can be managed.  Things will always go wrong, but you’re not as likely to have a tripbuster if you think things through first, and that’s the big lesson for the kids as they age.