The Boomer Dilemma

Several days ago I had a conversation online regarding an article in The Boston Globe entitled “The Baby Boomers are Downsizing and the Kids Won’t Take the Family Heirlooms.” I read some comments that made me sad and made some comments that I now regret. Still, I have to admit, as a “Boomer” struggling with the reality of downsizing, it hurts like hell and is not for the timid!

The comments that I now regret played right into the “us vs. them” dichotomy that I have been trying to purge from my consciousness. A conversation might begin in separate camps, but no one benefits when that discussion gets mired, or ends in adversarial positions. In this stage of my life, I want to surround myself with acceptance, love, and peace. Pointing fingers against those in younger generations and labeling innocent actions with words like “selfish,” “uncaring,” and “self-centered,” stifles rather than promotes open exchange of ideas and deeper understanding. I am hoping that this blog entry will advance the conversation and help the younger generation understand what I am calling “the boomer dilemma.” 

Many (dare I say “most”) boomers were raised with a sincere devotion to our elders. When I was a child, we were not allowed to call any adult by his/her first name. If we ever “sassed” an adult, we would be severely reprimanded. If our grandparents were deceased, our families made several visits each year to say prayers at and tidy their grave sites. For some families this was done at least once per month. Growing up in the Catholic faith tradition also meant that the practices of cremation and scattering of ashes, were strictly forbidden.

I’d like my children to understand that my parents and relatives lived through the Great Depression. They worked extremely hard to be able to own a home and furnishings. They only threw something in the garbage after it was impossible to salvage. I remember my dad having new heels put on his shoes and having them “re-soled” rather than buy a new pair. They taught us to wrap our school books in saved grocery bags, there were no “fast food” packages to be thrown out after a meal, to earn money for penny candy we returned used glass bottles for the deposit, and we were always surrounded by 30-year-old refrigerators, ranges, dishes, flatware, and furniture covered in plastic. Most of the time we came to adulthood sleeping on the same bed our parents bought for us when we outgrew our cribs. We went away to college, if we could afford it, with our childhood dressers. We grew up in neighborhoods where we were born, and no more than ten miles from most of our aunts, uncles, and cousins. Relocating to the suburbs was considered a “big move.” Unless we joined the military, we seldom left the state where we were born.

As our relatives passed away, they bequeathed to us the items they worked hard to obtain and lovingly cared for year after year throughout their lives. When speaking of these treasures, they would often say, “This is your grandmother’s turkey platter or tea set,” “This is the cedar chest I got when I was 16 as part of my trousseau,” “Your grandpa gave this to me, and now I am giving it to you,” or “Great Uncle Fred wanted you to have this rosary.” We feel a sincere obligation to treasure these items and the memories of their original owners. Somehow, caring for and handling these inanimate objects, connects us to their spirit and memory in a very tangible way.

One blogger called our children the “Ikea and Target Generation” and said they have no desire for “heirlooms” like fine china or large pieces of furniture now referred to as “brown pieces.” They are mobile and have little or no job loyalty or security to keep them in a particular place for their entire lives. Everything they buy has built in obsolescence. Our children have learned that if any major appliance is still working after ten years, they are very fortunate. Many young people are sincerely seeking a simpler existence with less “stuff.” 

On an intellectual level I understand all these observations. The tension develops at the psychological and emotional level. Boomers have entered our final stage of life. Each muscle ache, new pair of bifocals, doctor’s visit, and prescription refill makes that painfully obvious. The deepest desire of our hearts is to be appreciated and remembered. In most cases, we want to stay in the familiar home we worked so hard to obtain and we want to stay around our lifelong friends. Unfortunately, finances, health, and abilities often require us to leave all that has become dear to us. It is an extremely stressful time. When a child says, “I have no use for Grandma’s vase, Uncle Charlie’s bandsaw, or the breakfront Dad gave you for your first anniversary” we hear, “Your values and memories are unimportant to me.”

We need to adjust our interpretation of our children’s responses. We need to remember that this is also a stressful time for them. They do not want to admit their parents are growing weaker and more dependent. It concerns them, when they hear about our friends dying and realize that our support systems are diminishing. They really want to honor our values and memory, but in different ways. It disturbs them when they hear we need to sell the home where they grew up. They are reluctant, as we are, to face our mortality. Most of all, they don’t want to have to make choices about the heirlooms and tchotchkes in the midst of the grieving process after our passing, particularly mundane items like formal dinnerware, cut glass, bulky furniture, and unidentified photographs. 

The dilemma is that we have those very same concerns while simultaneously experiencing physical, emotional, and psychological changes. We realize that there is less life ahead of us than is behind. We must continually “let go,” but struggle to do so. The thought of giving or disposing of cherished heirlooms to strangers or the trash heap, makes us feel that we are dishonoring the givers and somehow losing connection to the world we have known.

There are two things that might make this dilemma easier to bear. First of all, as boomers, we need to stop taking things personally when our children say, “Maybe you should give that to a charity.” or “You need to get rid of a lot of this stuff.” They are just making an observation that we, in our heart of hearts, already know is true. They are not trying to slap us in the face, though that is the interpretation we sometimes make. It would also be helpful if young people could be more gentle with their language and remember the importance of the “I-message.” For example a good response during a downsizing conversation would be, “I love you and cherish all my ancestors and all you (and they) have given me. I would truly appreciate (mention one sentimental belonging) as a cherished memento of our lives together. No matter how our lives change, I will always remember (fill in the blank with some cherished intangible memory). Would you like my help in sorting through these other items so we can pass them on to those who can really use and enjoy them as much as you have?” 

On both sides of the conversation, gentleness should temper honesty, understanding needs to take priority over practicality, and sincere love must undergird all the words we choose. I pray that we can ALL turn a dilemma into a delight when facing the challenges of downsizing.