Boomers are aging: But their relationships can continue to flourish, grow stronger and become more fulfilling throughout the years

by Temecula psychologist Linda Comin, Psy.D.

Is it cliché or is 60 the new 40?   With 78 million baby boomers born from 1946 through 1964 they are about to face challenges that their parents and grandparents never did.  This generation by way of sheer numbers will redefine and shift the nations attitudes and perceptions of aging.  They have been written about by many and have become known as “Generation Ageless” because they seem to have an unwavering determination to stay young.  The baby boomers have always been at the forefront of change.  Now that they are aging, they will change the paradigm of aging and the way the nation looks at seniors.  This group of aging seniors sees themselves as younger and will be living and acting accordingly.

The boomer generation has redefined every stage of life they have entered, so becoming a senior will be no exception.  The baby boomers are not lacking in personal growth, as they are the ones who activated the movements in the 60’s that changed our culture.  However, some may fall prey to disease and age related illnesses while others are determined to stay healthy and productive contributors to society. Boomers are living longer and healthier lives, and along with this longevity there are bound to be many life changes, financially, personally and professionally.  They will not be taking early retirement at age 62 and instead desire to live life with purpose remaining in the work force and perhaps starting a new profession.

 

The baby boomers are the originators of the self focused “I” generation.  Distinguished Author Tom Wolfe has identified this generation as the  “me decade” in his renowned 1976 New York article. They now have to learn to take the focus off of themselves and realize how to make others important.  In a 1989 book Destructive Generation, author Steinhorn, nicknamed this generation,  “Worst Generation” based on their hedonistic personal habits, quest for self-fulfillment and for every social ill from the climbing divorce rate to teen drug use.  Now that the boomers are becoming seniors they are experiencing uncertainty in what it takes to keep love and relationships together for the long haul.

Boomers have also been identified as the “sandwich generation”.  The absolute numbers of boomers entering they’re 60’s and 70’s is astounding, however in many cases their parents are still living.   According to the National Institute on Aging those 85 and over are the fastest growing segments in the country.  What this means is that boomers entering what was traditionally considered old age are now “sandwiched” between their living parents, their own children and in some cases their grandchildren.  Most of these boomers are profoundly involved in the care of their aging parents, according to a 2005 survey 13 million and rising.  Therefore what we have is seniors taking care of seniors.  Boomers are already starting to wonder who is going to take care of them and what will be left of social security and Medicare.  This then becomes another dilemma that boomers will be facing.

Life’s challenges or midlife crises can occur in many forms big and small.  The following would be considered major life events; illness, divorce, layoff, aging parents, or death of a loved one.  Smaller less obvious life occurrences would be daily boredom, un-ease, sadness, unhappiness, anxiety, and depression are simple signs that something is no longer working in one’s life.   At any age it is critical to be observant of ones inner signals before it turns into a larger issue.

These aging years will begin with the challenges of the “empty nest” syndrome.  The years that preceded the children leaving were focused on the children and their careers.  The couple lost touch with the relationship and learning how to keep their friendships alive.  The loss of connection outside of the children leads to problems inside the bedroom.  At this stage in their relationship the couple needs to learn how to connect again developing a foundation of friendship through finding mutual hobbies or activities to participate in together, such as hiking, biking, dancing, book clubs and cooking classes.

The next challenge of aging is menopause/andropause, which usually is accompanied by behavioral changes, weight gain and libido changes.  It is not unusual for the couple to wander away from each other during these times emotionally, physically or sexually.  If the couple has an awareness of what is happening it is a good time to increase their connections with each other by re-romancing their relationship, communication and sexual exploration.  These changes can also be treated with hormones, proper nutrition and exercise.

Aging parents will present certain challenges for this generation for two reasons due to our own aging and because our children are either attending university or returning home in staggering numbers due to high unemployment rates.  Since their parents are living longer they may be outliving their retirement income.   This will place an increased financial burden on this generation.  AARP reports that 44% of boomers have living parents as well as children under age 21 and that 22% financially support their parents by contributing to housing, home care, medical, pharmaceutical, travel and clothing costs.  In addition, 25 million or greater unmarried adults aged 19-39 live with their parents.  Furthermore, when they do leave, half of them return home within 30 months, often bringing spouse or child back with them.  With this myriad of financial obligations and emotional complications the goal will be to strike a balance between maintaining a decent lifestyle today and investing for tomorrow.  Balance in life is imperative in all areas and the financial area is no exception.  This balance will require a change in mindset from spending to conserving and for this generation that has prospered in the past this may be difficult to learn to pull in the reins on the wants to focusing on their needs.  This will require a conversation with the family regarding money management, redirecting discretionary income in order to prepare for the future.  Often times it is a good idea to have a family meeting to set goals.  This discussion would involve everyone, including children.  The premise here is that if they‘re part of the family then they should be part of the solution.   Even though it may be uncomfortable it is also a good idea to sit down with aging parents and discuss plans for their future (retirement funds, trusts/wills, long-term care, death and burial wishes) so that everyone understands what the expectations are and what possible problems may arise.

For boomers planning is the key to a secure financial future.  It is important to establish sensible spending and saving habits.  If you find yourself falling short of your goals then this needs to be immediately addressed.  It is important to realistically examine where you stand in the here and now relative to what your goals are. 

Stephen Mitchell, senior vice president of Fidelity Personal Investments states, “having a plan is like having a road map.  Once you name your goals and determine what it will cost to get there, you can better understand your level of flexibility in achieving them.”  This may require the following:

• Shifting priorities, such as delaying retirement to grow your savings and retirement income.


• Changing expectations such as shifting your child’s education from a private college to a public college or having them contribute to their education which is not a bad idea as it teaches them responsibility.


• Curb spending, tracking expenses to determine where your money is going.  Become a better consumer and pare down your expenses.


• Maximizing contributions to your 401k or other employer-sponsored plans.


• Set up automatic payroll deposits into accounts reserved for particular savings goals.


• Looking into long-term care insurance if feasible for you or your parents.


• Pay yourself first; before you pay your bills contribute 10-15% of your income to savings or retirement fund.


• Revisit your plan periodically; it is better to plan then to not plan at all.  Be conservative with your finances and you will find yourself in a better position in the future.

There may also be the challenge of losing a partner through death or divorce.  The physical or psychological death of a partner can be shocking and painful.  Balancing life after losing a partner may pose one of the biggest challenges of your life.   Building a new life after spending so many years with your loved one is difficult for many.  One of the most difficult challenges after spending 30 or 40 years with someone is getting back into dating again. It is very important to grieve your relationship before you enter the dating scene again otherwise you will bring all of your problems with you and it will influence the relationship negatively.   Here are some tips:

• Purge your guilt, there is nothing you can do about changing the past so to feel guilty about something you did or did not do or could have done differently is a waste of time.  Whether you lost your beloved to death or divorce be wiling to move on.  You can look fondly back at the memories but do not let the memories control your future.   If you hold onto the past it will sabotage your ability to move forward and find new love in your life.  It is important to note here that if your feelings of guilt persist and you begin to feel depressed or anxious about moving forward, see a counselor before you begin dating.


• Tell your story but do it carefully, no one wants to constantly hear about your past relationship.  You are more than that the relationship, it was not your identity.  You are a person with a career, opinions, hobbies, accomplishments, social values, political views and your own unique way of looking at the world.  Over-reminiscing about the past will make your new acquaintance feel excluded.


• Define your desires/goals.  It is very important to define what you want in a new partner.  You may find that you are looking for the same thing but it will be very difficult to clone that person.  It is not plausible that you will find an exact replica of the person you were with.  On the brighter side maybe it would be a positive thing to make a change and find someone completely different.  Nonetheless be open to all possibilities and explore this area before making a commitment.


• Reinvent yourself, it is never too late to take stock and retool whom you are.  If you have become overweight, out of shape, or out of style think about re-grooming.  Start working out hire a personal trainer or go back to the gym and return to an exercise routine you once enjoyed.  It is never too late to update your style, a new haircut/hairstyle or a total makeover.  Perhaps seek out an image consultant, personal shopper or clothing consultant to change your appearance.


• Make a connection let your friends and colleagues know that you are back in the dating scene and that you are open to meeting someone.  Don’t rule out meeting someone online after all we are more socially connected online than we have ever been before.  So don’t be shy but do be careful.  If you are going to try online dating do your due diligence and practice Internet safety.  Always meet in a public area first then take it from there.  If you feel uncomfortable about this person eventually coming to your home continue to meet this person at the destination till you know the person better and feel more comfortable.  Remember to have fun.

There are many different ways of supporting a long-term relationship through midlife, whether it is a partnership or marriage.  One important element to remember is that when the relationship begins to have difficulties seek help.  Do not wait till the relationship is ready for divorce before you call a counselor.  The reason why some partnerships work and others do not is because we forget to appreciate our differences.  It is important to like in your partner what you dislike in yourself, according to Dr. Harville Hendrix.  Furthermore, it is important to recognize that your partner can never meet all of your needs so make sure that your expectations are reasonable.  Lastly it is important for each of us to learn how to soothe ourselves in difficult situations.  Here are some ways to improve your relationship:

• Have fun it is a well-known fact that couples who play together stay together.  It is also very healthy to make new neurological connections in our brains by participating in new activities together such as golf, dance, bowling or any active skill of your choice.  The new connections give way to positive emotions and deeper intimacy.

 

• Stop controlling each other.  There is nothing wrong with healthy conflict however if you find that the same conflict arises over and over again then you are in what we call gridlock.  Neither of you wants to give in and both of you want to be right.  There is no a right way or a wrong way to fight just stop being judgmental/critical of each other.  There is no such thing as constructive criticism it is still criticism.    The goal in relationship is to have more positivity than negativity.  Criticisms create an unequal relationship that leads to anxiety and anger.  The rule of thumb in relationships should be would you rather be right or happy?

• Hone your listening skills.  It is best to listen with compassion and respond with kindness.  Minimize mindreading sometimes couples that have been together for a long time will think that they know what the other is saying but what they are actually doing is hearing the message through their own filter.   It is important to take time to sit down and communicate in a respectful empathic manner.  When listening to your partner it is important to mirror back to him or her what you heard this gives your partner the opportunity to listen to what you heard and clear up any miscommunications.

• When you communicate use “I" statements.

It is important to validate what you hear even if you do not agree.  Validation let’s your partner know that you get him or her such as, “That makes sense that you feel that way.”

• Empathize by demonstrating genuine caring for your partner’s experience.

• Give each other daily appreciations for the little things and big things that you each do for each other.

• Suggest do not demand that your partner help or support you in life.  This is the difference between a soft start-up and a harsh start up.  Harsh start-ups result in your partner shutting down and shutting you out.

• Make love with each other all of the time and sometimes have sex.  The distinction here is that if you do not communicate kindness and love outside of the bedroom then your sexual relationship will suffer.  Try making a list of caring behaviors that you can do for each other to enrich your intimacy.

• It is important to realize that we cannot change anyone else but you can change yourself.  So instead of focusing on what your partner is doing wrong turn it into a positive for yourself by finding something to work on for you like exercise, reading, or finding a new hobby.  The paradigm here is that the more you accept your partners differences and accept them for who they really are, the more they become the person you want them to be.

• Feel good about you, take care of yourself; when you make time for you, for the things that you love and need you will feel better and more tolerant of your partner.  So go to the gym, workout, take that class you’ve always thought about or hang out with your pals, just have fun and enjoy!

Last but not least it is most important to support the spiritual core of your relationship.  This means developing a sense of purpose and goals as a couple.  Most of us know that our values and ideals change and evolve over time.  The challenge here will be to bring the spirituality in synchronicity with your relationship.  It will not be easy for the “me” generation to put themselves aside for the good of the relationship.  This takes a conscious commitment to put the other first and support your partner instead of yourself.  According to Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., forgetting yourself in relationship is linked to a longer more positive connection in the couple and is essential to building psychological health throughout your middle years.   Furthermore, research suggests that positive emotions help us to deal with stress, pain and illness as well as positive psychological health in our lives.

 

Generally speaking I believe that our world is beginning to shift in behaviors and values that reflect more awareness of the interconnectedness between everyone on the planet.  People are awakening to their actions and words have resounding effects everywhere, anywhere and towards anyone.  Mindfulness is becoming a household word whereby people are paying attention to well-being, sustainability and building towards the larger good for all.   Giving is about giving and not for receiving or getting something back.  Put the other first make it about them, not about you, this should be the mantra of the times.