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  • Seniors Acquire Generational Experience

    • Posted on Dec 14, 2015
    Here's a short speech I gave yesterday (Sunday 12-13) to a "Commencement" of 
    UNI seniors and elder seniors together who had been getting to know each other as part of Professor Kathy Oakland's "Human Relations" class.  Each of the seniors were assigned to get to know an elder senior well enough to tell a compelling story about their (the elder senior's) life, which was published in the "SAGE" collection. 

    It's groundbreaking program, and it's generating quite a buzz on an off campus. 


    December 13, 2015 
    NewAldaya Lifescapes 
    Cedar Falls, Iowa 

             Where has “Seniors Acquiring Generational Experience”—SAGE—been all these years?  Why hasn’t this program been around for decades?  Old and young go together like sunrise and sunset, and when they share time between them a whole new day appears.   Until now, most of us missed that obvious connection, at least in a higher education setting.

             The four-semester-old SAGE vision at UNI and NewAldaya has produced a unique youth/age synergy.

             I witnessed it firsthand from college seniors telling their stories in Kathy Oakland’s class a couple of weeks ago.  Their excitement is compelling and memorable, as is the newest printed book of stories, hot off the presses.     

             “Seniors” in the acronym SAGE applies to both young (college) and elder seniors.  Elder seniors inevitably have been transformed not only from schooling and teachers, but by life, having witnessed depressions, wars, assassinations, and technological earthquakes that shifted the very ground under their feet—from analog to digital, dial tones to smartphones, broadcasts to podcasts.

             Anyone over sixty feels bewildered at times and looks to youth for guidance on USB connections and multiple terabyte external hard drive storage devices.  My hat’s off to any elder who’s comfortable with Twitter and Instagram. 

             Thus elder seniors have survived unprecedented change, technologically, culturally, socially, intellectually, and politically.  

             Moreover, elders have personally experienced loss and heartbreak beyond anything most young seniors can imagine.  By the time they’ve reached seventy, they’ve grieved for many lost loved ones and friends, and experienced the suffering that defines the human condition.

             In other words, they have plenty to talk about.

             Sharing their experiences in conversational socializing with young seniors offers the equivalent of an archeological memory dig, a search into the past for what’s real and valuable that would otherwise be lost.  Just as important:  the intimacy that grows out of sharing stories. 

             Let me share a story about my dad, who lived the final eight years of his life here at NewAldaya.

             He was newly widowed when he first arrived, grieving the loss of his second wife. Suffering from grief and depression, he probably wouldn’t have lived much longer.

             Angeleita and I felt lucky to find a place for him rather quickly in an independent living apartment at what was then the Cedar Falls Lutheran Home.  He soon made card-playing friends, and with his gift for putting people at ease, laughter surrounded him.  Needless to say, his depression disappeared,

    and he lived eight more years, celebrating his 95th birthday with friends and family at NewAldaya.    

              Where some elders become grumpier with age, he became kinder and funnier—in the ha-ha sense—and I credit daily socializing here at NewAldaya.   

             For years every Sunday afternoon, Angeleita and I would visit and bring a small cooler of beer. I always felt like my Heinekens were contraband, since Lutherans weren’t known for approving of public consumption.  

             We felt like smugglers.

             After he died in 2008, we wanted to honor his love of socializing by helping create a place where meeting and greeting—with a little beer/wine—gets built into the very design of the room.  That would be a bar, tavern, a saloon, a lounge, or our favorite word for such places, Pub. 

             Elm’s Pub, to be exact, and Elmer, my dad, would be honored and delighted to know that his legacy of sharing an occasional beer and conversation with relatives and friends now graces Main Street here at NewAldaya.  No more smuggling.

             What’s not to like about Elm’s Pub?

             Socializing, playing cards, sharing a drink can be criticized or trivialized as being mere time-killers.  But as I hope all seniors know, socializing at its best means energizing and rejuvenating through storytelling, making connections that would otherwise be missed.

             On a small scale, it’s love.  

             Dad and I grew closer in his later years, and I treasured our Sunday afternoon talks.  We weren’t just passing time. By sharing our stories, we went beyond “father” and “son” roles and became intimate friends, especially as we shared grieving over the untimely death of his son and my brother, Jim.     

             In effect, we had formed a mini-SAGE, and I related our stories in several Courier columns over the years.

             The beer wasn’t important—just an excuse to get together and share something we both enjoyed. That’s why SAGE makes so much sense.   It’s about finding common ground, reaching new levels of understanding and empathy that all but inevitably grow out of combining youthful enthusiasm with elderly experience.   

             So kudos again to UNI, especially Kathy Oakland, and to Millissa Tierney and Kristena Potratz at NewAldaya for

    helping develop and support this game-changer of a program.  Even though the idea was staring everyone in the face, it took visionaries to first see it and then make it happen.

             Everyone wins.   




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  • Graduates! You're Not Ready

    • Posted on May 12, 2013

    Published this morning in the Waterloo Courier.  Graduation season 
    provokes long, long thoughts.   

    Finally it’s May, graduation month.   Time for ending and beginning. 

    Ending, meaning getting certified with a degree. That’s the first half.   

    Hearty congratulations to certified graduates.   If you’re renting a robe and flat hat this month, you’ve completed half of your graduation. 

    The other half?  Beginning the rest of your life.  That’s what “commencement” means, after all. 

    Graduates, you’re now supposedly ready to begin.  And if you’re not a tad 

    terrified, you’re not paying attention.  

    Truth is, your formal schooling cannot have made you ready.  Not even close.  

    Nothing that formal education offers, and I mean from Ivy Leagues to taxpayer-supported all-purpose schools—has given you enough knowledge and skills for the churning world you now enter.  

    This is not due to grade inflation, rewarding mediocrity with high grades for little work.  Nor because states have cut back radically on financial support for academics, downgrading education in favor of sports for entertainment.   

    The problem lies deeper and is more insidious.   

    The fact is, our lives and times no longer can be prepared for.  We’re living in an evolving world of utter unpredictability.  A world of black swans, to quote from Nassim Taleb’s book of that title.   

    Events erupt for which no one could have prepared or predicted. 

    Make no mistake: More black swans wing their way toward us.  

    Examples:  Superbugs capable of inflicting pandemics that make past plagues look like rehearsals.  Weather gone wild, with climate change creating challenges beyond our capacity to accept. Widespread “Colony collapse” of honeybees that pollinate a third of the world’s crops. 

    A major religion hijacked by fringe elements ready to die and kill for their beliefs.  Nuclear weapons and other WMDs likely to fall into the hands of fanatics/lunatics.  North Korea’s there now.   

    More positively, breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology that will create or clone humans who live virtually forever, if they can afford and endure it.  Humans who are more machine than human, as Ray Kurzweil explores in his book “The Singularity is Near.”  

    Machines that outthink, outlive, and outmaneuver us at every turn.  Siri, anyone?

    And other events too bizarre to even imagine, but that will cause us all to rethink everything.   

    That’s the world you inherit, graduates, and must somehow negotiate.   

    You will wake up any number of mornings and face calamities and/or breakthroughs that not even sci-fi writers have conjured, at least in any accurate detail. 

    You think I jest?  Imagine a columnist writing in 1961, the year I graduated, and 

    offering some version of what actually happened from then to now. 

    Instant fingertip knowledge, 500-channel media, digitization of media, Facebook and Twitter with billions (yes, billions) caught up in seeking and finding their 15 seconds of fame for capturing anything bizarre enough. Passenger jets turned into missiles by fanatics.   Bottomless oceans of self-expression that engulf us all in shameless narcissism. 

    Were 1961 grads  “ready” for any of this?  Writers from that era who foresaw what actually did occur would have been reviled or ignored.  Of course none did. 

    I was no more ready for those shattering decades than sleepers are ready for a sinkhole to swallow them whole.  

    I would have chosen to stay in my little early sixties comfort zone of electric typewriters, secretaries who did the paperwork, women who stayed home and cooked and cleaned.  Tiny televisions broadcasting three channels. Three-chord pop music with great melodies and nonsense lyrics.  

    Most of what my classmates and I thought and did before our commencement 

    no longer makes sense.  I had to reinvent my worldview and myself several times, and only partially succeeded. 

    The times are not just a-changin’. They’re exploding—in every field, in all directions, at speeds beyond comprehension. Compared to the last fifty years, the next fifty will be on steroids.  

    So forget about being “ready.”   Rather, be teachable.  Malleable.  Flexible.  Curious.  Humble.  

    In short, become a human learning center, ready to be taught by anything and everything as it occurs.   

    That’s the beginning—commencement—of real readiness. 





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