The letters, usually addressed to my children, arrived without notice and often were comprised of a few sentences referencing an enclosed newspaper article. “Papa thought of you when he read this. Love you, Grandma and Papa.”
The article might be about Boy Scouts or baseball or any other subject that caught my Dad’s eye. I resented the notes certain that the short messages were meant as digs about my sub-standard parenting. After all, he had been my biggest critic. I carried his voice with me as much as I carried my brown hair and blue eyes. I resented him and the self-loathing and insecurity he so thoughtlessly bestowed upon me. Every gesture, every comment filtered through a gauzy haze of wariness that I donned to protect myself from further destruction.
We remained locked in a game of cat and mouse that left me quaking in the corner. Yet, change is inevitable – even for the cat and mouse. In this case change was kind.
The shift came into focus with the arrival of a box. A box filled with letters; letters written over generations; letters written by relatives who traversed an intricate maze of relationships to sit with me here on the floor of my living room amongst the written sentiments surrounding me. Love letters, thank you notes, confessions, apologies, updates, announcements, congratulations and lots of newspaper clippings spilled out of the box. I instinctively clung to them drawn to the remnants of my clan. I felt the weight and texture of the papers. I inhaled the smells and marveled at the artistry of the penmanship. I smiled at drawings and pictures from mine and my siblings’ childhoods. I cherished our earnest notes of love, “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you the most in the whole world! You are the very best Mommy.” Love, Jenny, Age 6.
I felt connected and suddenly understood the importance and purpose of the notes that I had so long resented. Each time a note arrived it was my Dad’s way of reaching out to me. We didn’t have words that we could share. He was now almost totally deaf and the past still clouded our ability to sit comfortably with one another, but the notes and articles said to me, “I’m thinking about you. Maybe this will help you or maybe you will find the subject interesting, but mostly, just know, I’m thinking about you.” Also inherent in the notes was the possibility that I or my children might respond – we didn’t, because I couldn’t recognize the hand being extended to me.
As I refocused I understood it was time to participate in this generational chain of communication. It was time to honor and celebrate this ritual of connectedness. The first note was written by my daughter. My son would send the next one. I haven’t sent one yet, but I suspect that time will soon come.
Our society is aging. Millions will pass into old age over the next twenty years. At 50, I am among this graying tribe. A smaller pool of younger people will be left to care for us, to understand and relate to us. Each of us share a responsibility to support one another throughout this massive demographic transition testing our economy, health care systems, workforce and families as never before. Staying connected and engaged is crucial as we traverse this new frontier.
My professional life is devoted to creating systems that support connections for people; connections to benefits, information, community resources and support services. The letters reminded me that our most powerful connection is to one another.
• 42% of caregivers live within twenty minutes of the care recipient. One-quarter of care recipients (24%) live with the caregiver and another one-fifth (19%) live within an hour of the care recipient. The remaining 15% of caregivers live more than an hour from the care recipient. – Source: National Alliance for Caregiving.
• Long distance caregivers live an average of 480 miles from the people for which they care. – Source: Long Distance Caregiver Project – Alzheimer’s Association LA & Riverside, Los Angeles, CA.
• Between the years 2000 – 2015 the number of long distance caregivers will double. – Source: Long Distance Caregiver Project – Alzheimer’s Association LA & Riverside, Los Angeles, CA.
• The National Institute on Aging estimates there are 7 million Americans that are long-distance caretakers.
• Annual expenses incurred by long-distance caregivers came to about $8,728. – Source: National Alliance for Caregiving, Evercare, in alliance with United Health Group 2010.
• Many long-distant caregivers had to cut back on work hours, take extra time-off from work, take on extra debt and cut personal spending. The problem that is growing in magnitude as time goes on. Source: National Alliance for Caregiving, Evercare, in alliance with United Health Group 2010.