AMERICA'S DIVERSE OLDER ADULT POPULATION
There is substantial diversity among America's population of older adults in terms of living situation, economic resources, and health. Many retirees live alone or with their spouse. An ever-decreasing number live with their children or close relatives. In New York and other major cities, most retirees live in apartments, using their limited funds to maintain a modest lifestyle.
Retirees who are financially able tend to move to warm climates. Certain geographic areas have larger concentrated populations of retirees than others. For example, New York City has the most retirees, followed by the Sun Belt states of Florida, California, and Arizona.
Retirement communities, condominiums, and mobile home parks designed for seniors are becoming ever more popular. Many such facilities are well-planned, with appropriate activities and facilities. Retirement life in these types of settings are designed to ease the stress associated with retirement.
However, these same communities can also become modern-day holding tanks in which seniors are effectively isolated from the rest of society. Many younger adults in our country maintain the attitude of "out of sight, out of mind" with regard to older Americans (including their own parents). Isolation is one of the worst specters of retirement. By removing the retiree from mainstream society, interaction between younger and older members of the community is precluded. This trend is disturbing, both in terms of the negative effects on isolated seniors and the implications for the younger population ‑ which will, of course, make up the next generation of retirees!
THE ECONOMICS OF RETIREMENT
"What am I going to do?"
"Who and where are my friends?"
"Who cares about me?"
"Does anyone understand what is happening to me?"
These are just a few of the questions people ask themselves as they enter their retirement years.
The stress or anticipatory anxiety associated with retirement actually begins years before retirement itself. When we are younger, the concept of retiring is remote and given little thought; yet we also consider it our right to have a decent retirement. As we approach retirement, however, a sense of foreboding and doom may set in as we confront the reality that our working years are coming to an end. Retirement is often thought of in much the same context as death ‑ as the end of our productive life. This causes many of us to avoid discussing or even thinking rationally about our own retirement, let alone plan for how we will handle it. This only serves to make the underlying stress more severe than it need be.
Of primary importance are economic considerations, especially the ability to maintain a comparable standard of living to that of one's working years. Many retirees are disappointed to learn that they must settle for far less than they expected. A large proportion of today's retirees have only Social Security benefits to exist on, while others may have small pensions. Even this combination, however, rarely matches the earning power of the middle to later working years. One result is that countless potential retirees have been forced to continue working in order to maintain some semblance of their pre-senior lifestyle.
During the 1950's and 1960's, most home buyers prudently invested and watched their equity grow as property values soared. As retirees, they face the dilemma of wanting to use funds from the sale of their property, yet also face the reality of what they can afford to pay for another home elsewhere.
Martha E. is a 58-year old Hispanic woman who worked for 39 years for a major American insurance company, ending up as an executive manager. In the midst of major cutbacks, she was offered an early retirement package.
I'd been with the company since I got out of high school, and I always assumed I'd stay with them until retiring at 65. Even though I'd seen some brutal tactics in the business world, I found the coldness was directed at me hard to take. It was a setup. On the surface they gave me a choice: I could accept the package (a small pension and some severance pay) or accept a demotion to a non-executive job and a freeze in pay until I retired later. The only intelligent choice was to accept the terms dictated by the company.
I stayed for six months, but I was filled with resentment and anger. I felt like my loyalty and hard work were being thrown in my face. I'd worked hard to overcome years of discrimination, and had finally reached an executive position. I felt cheated when faced with the loss of my remaining years, which would have been productive both for myself and for the company. The company held seminars to help with the transition, but I wanted no part of them.
When I left, it was even more of a shock. I had to deal with the disruption of my life routine, and live on two-thirds the income. The tax consequences of early retirement were also terrifying. I had to confront my anger, and that was the hardest part, since it jeopardized my ability to make rational decisions. I turned to a lot of people for help in dealing with this situation. I knew that I just couldn't do it alone.
You can only do so much gardening or so many times you want to window-shop in the mall and look at store windows. Making short term plans has helped me get through this ordeal. I began to do some volunteer work at a local hospital. Right now I work in the gift shop, but there are other duties which are more closely related to caretaking and health care which I look forward to doing. I'm sure that it will all work out, but right now, it's definitely one day at a time.
Phil A. is an experienced county personnel supervisor. He sums up his perception of the many employees he has seen retire throughout his career.
The first month or so after you retire the reality hasn't sunk in that you're never going back to work again; it just feels like a month's vacation. But then you wake up one morning and realize that you're not going back. You spend a greater proportion of your life in your work setting than you do with your family, and it's a major thing to suddenly give up something that you'd grown so totally acclimated to.
It's like when you were single and had a bunch of guys you ran around with and then one of the guys got married. He was no longer a member of the group, an outcast. That's just like what the retiree feels – he's an outcast, and he doesn't know how to get back in. He doesn't fit any longer with the guys still working because he can't talk about the day to day things. His networks are all gone. The only things he can talk about are the things that happened in the past.
Some retirees open a small business or try to create a new career. One guy bought an orchard and spends all his time taking care of his trees. He's still making money, being productive, doing something.
Most workers take things on a day-to-day basis, and think of retirement as a far-away and abstract concept. Then, all of a sudden, the day comes. They haven't prepared for all the idle time. Maybe they spent the first month or two fixing up the house, but when the house and yard are all fixed up, then what? Lots of guys say "I'm going to play golf every day”. It seldom works out that way. Who are they going to play with 3 or 4 times a week? Most people are still out there making a living, and don't have time.
There are more than a few retirees who don't make a good adjustment, and who stay lost. They can't seem to take control of their lives and get into something new. I think this is usually the result of not really planning for retirement.
THE HEALTH CARE DILEMMA
A central issue for today's seniors is the mounting cost of health care. The seemingly uncontrollable rise in cost has doubled Medicare expenditures in the past five years alone, and threatens to bankrupt the separate hospital trust fund 2005.
There are now more than 33 million recipients of Medicare benefits, and this number continues to increase by about 15% annually. Financing for these benefits is becoming quite fragile, and relies primarily on payroll taxes from 138 million workers. It takes the taxes paid by four active workers to pay for the health care costs of each Medicare recipient. The future is bleak, given the current demographic situation. The number of senior citizens will soar as the Baby Boomers age, and it seems quite possible that available funds will be depleted within the next 15 years! If the current system should fail, as many predict it will, seniors will be forced to use their savings and/or assets to finance the costs of their own health care.
RETIREMENT FOR TODAY'S MID-LIFE WORKERS
In contrast to past generations, today's mid-life worker may find a comfortable retirement much more elusive. Today's workers are much more mobile, and are not as likely to spend their entire career with the same organization as workers have been in the past. Corporate restructuring, plant shutdowns, changing technology, and shifting markets have dramatically affected the length of time people stay at the same job. This directly affects funding a pension, and can easily nullify a person's ability to qualify for pension benefits.
Related to frequent job switching is the fact that many young workers cash out their pension funds early. According to one report, 4 out of 5 receive lump sum settlements and spend the proceeds rather than put them in individual retirement accounts. According to the Department of Labor, workers who switched jobs collected approximately $12 billion in early retirement savings. Yet despite having to pay accumulated taxes and a 10% penalty, those same workers managed to spend $9.6 billion of that money on automobiles and consumer goods! While this might have enhanced their standard of living in the short run, the long-term implications for retirement are startling and frightening.
Most recently, as a consequence of the junk bond crisis, some pension fund managers and companies have been seriously affected. Thousands of workers now face the reality of never being able to collect their pension benefits, even though they may have paid into the fund for years or decades.
FACING THE REALITY OF LIVING...AND DYING
Preparing ourselves for the later years of life is essential. The "Golden Years" are filled with challenges and transitions. Illness and associated medical expenses must be anticipated. The death of life-long friends, including life partners, becomes a persistent and disturbing reality. Major financial adjustments are likely to be necessary. And adjusting to a totally different lifestyle can be traumatic indeed.
Building a support system of friends and family is essential, as is planning ahead and realistically anticipating what might occur. Writing wills and anticipating the needs of surviving spouses and family members must be dealt with! Making funeral arrangements in advance, while morbid to some, is actually liberating for many (and a very thoughtful thing to do for surviving family members). Knowing that you have done all you can regarding your final care is a very healthy way of facing the reality of your own mortality. A good example is the standard come-back line when a retiree is asked how he's feeling: "I feel fine. And it's better than the other option!"
All aspects of retirement life should be openly discussed with those affected by major decisions (family members and close friends). Most of the psychological stressors associated with our "golden years" can be significantly alleviated if a pragmatic and intelligent plan is developed, shared, and put into effect prior to retirement.
MAKING A HEALTHY TRANSITION INTO RETIREMENT
The following suggestions are derived directly from my psychotherapeutic work with individuals going through the retirement process:
Maintain a positive survival spirit. Remember that life is always moving forward. Learn to live in the present. Remaining "stuck" in the past only leads to depression or frustration. Share positive thoughts and actions with others to create an environment of active and productive energy.
Limit major changes in your lifestyle to a specific period of time - 6 months to a year. Major life changes always create stress, and you need time to allow for any necessary adjustments. Setting realistic short-term goals helps you achieve your objectives while still enjoying a sense of well-being.
Avoid a "Poor Me" attitude, and don't feel sorry for yourself! It's self-defeating to complain about your problems. Besides, friends and relatives will get tired of hearing it and start to avoid you.
Re-evaluate! Retirement does not mean forced idleness. If you were a compulsive, Type A person before retirement, moving into not working can be traumatic indeed. Compulsive work patterns are often a sign of running away from personal psychological issues or deeper emotional conflicts. Retirement may be the time you will want to reflect on your reasons for working so hard. Learning to do nothing, or at least learning to do much less, is actually doing something! Look upon retirement as providing you with time to reflect, relax and formulate new plans for your life. You've earned it!
Plan systematically and flexibly. Don't allow yourself to be "stuck" with your feet in cement. Remember that you make your own schedules and plans, and that you can change them if you want to. The only real obligations you have are the ones you want!
Learn to cope with feelings of loss of control and power, and recognize that they're not really well founded. During our working years, we grow accustomed to having some sense of control over our life and destiny, and we worry that retirement will lead to the loss of that control. Not true. Retirement can actually provide you with more freedom in your life than you've ever had before. Amazingly, the idea of freedom remains petrifying for those who would rather avoid the prospect of having to develop a meaning and purpose for each and every day.
Adjust your financial requirements. Retirement generally means reduced income, and it's your responsibility to study your financial position in detail and make necessary adjustments. Having a clear understanding of your financial situation can greatly reduce your stress and frustration.
Learn new ways of coping if your spouse is still working. Remember that your "retirement" is your own, and you have to find your own meaning and purpose in life. Your partner has his or her own agenda and you have yours. When a husband who has been the primary breadwinner retires, it is not the wife's responsibility to provide a new purpose or direction for him. Nor should she have to make major changes in her routine and habits to fit in with the new situation. Open communication between partners is essential to bring about a smooth transition.
Develop new interests or hobbies, or re-establish old ones. The most devastating and self-defeating approach to retirement is to treat it as simply "killing time”. We must remember that life is, in its simplest terms, just time; if we kill time, we are killing a part of life we can never recapture.
Devote part of your life to community, spiritual, or other endeavors. This interaction with others keeps you in a contemporary mindset, and also represents a way for you to give something back to the community. Socializing also counteracts feelings that may arise from self-pity or fantasies about the way things used to be.
Retirement is not the end of the "Book of Life," but just another chapter. Retirement signifies only the cessation of work, and we must see it as a normal and expected phase of life. The retirement years can and should be just as productive, active, and exciting as all the previous years combined. This excitement just takes a different shape. There are countless examples of public figures who have maintained their vitality and contribute, create, and participate in their communities and world affairs. Seek out these role models and learn from their success in retirement as a foundation for your own productivity and well-being.
CLERGY UNDER SIEGE: OUR MINISTERS ARE BURNING OUT
Even our spiritual leaders are burning out today in increasing numbers. In 1990, the Southern Baptist Convention reported that , after maternity benefits, the largest portion of the $64.2 million paid to pastors in medical claims the previous year was for the treatment of stress-related illness.
A senior consultant of the Alban Institute – a nondenominational organization based in Washington, D.C., that offers consultation, leadership training and referral services for churches and synagogues nationwide – "conservatively" estimated that 17% of the parish clergy he has worked with during his more than 20 year career were suffering the effects of long-term stress or burnout. He defined burnout as "a disease of the overcommitted who refuse to come to terms with their limitations."
It seems that when stress in the culture increases, people bring that pressure to their place of worship, along with higher expectations of the clergy. As a result, todays clergy are trying to live up to these expectations by trying to cover all the bases. But it is never enough. Like many others in public service, they can't quit at the end of the day, because there's always someone else in need!
As one priest indicated, " The church was a great place for me to try to get my self-esteem needs met. I find a lot of us, growing up wanted to save our families – but when that was impossible, we went out to save the world. We're generally workaholics, and we're great at fixing other people, but we don't have the foggiest notion of what to do for ourselves."
The director of the C.F.Meninger Memorial Hospital in Topeka, Kansas, a major referral center for troubled clergy stated, "They try to be loving to others in hopes of getting love in return – but often, to their surprise, they are met with a host of problems and become the target of complaints, resentment and disappointment."
In this writer's clinical experience, the primary symptoms presented by clergy members who sought or required treatment were those of chemical abuse and dependency, alcoholism, and depression.
While many priests suffer from a form of "spiritual bankruptcy," our society today as a whole seems to have less trust of authority, along with a lower image of the ministry itself – due in large part to the recent scandals involving TV evangelists and others associated with the misappropriation of funds from religious orders and cults. In that sense, it may also be fair to state that our society as a whole is also suffering from a form of spiritual bankruptcy as well.
source: Whittmore, Hank. Parade Magazine, Ministers Under Stress. April 14, 1991
IF IT WERE NOT FOR OUR CHILDHOOD, WE'D ALL BE NORMAL!
Many, if not most people complain about their childhood – that is a fact. I have met few individuals inside or outside the psychological consulting office who believed their childhood was wonderful or their parents were great. It also appears that most adults spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about their childhood and parents as the basis for their stresses. Parent bashing is not new. Among themselves, children frequently complain about their parents. In his perceptive and witty style, Peter Ustinov once remarked, "Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth." In that regard, a patient, amazed at his lack of insight and internal control related the following account to his therapist:
Steve Jaffe, a forty-five-year-old computer technician and divorced father of two children, had always been somewhat of a malcontent. Steve forever felt like the "Marginal Man," incomplete, and definitely not self-actualized. He viewed families as makeshift alliances at best. He tended to avoid relationships and self-revelation as one avoids the plague, his family included. He had not seen his father for almost a year when the impulse struck. Steve decided to drive the one hundred and twenty five miles to spend an afternoon with him. Upon seeing his father, however, instead of the sarcastic greeting as was his style, he unconsciously and uncontrollably blurted out, "You miserable old bastard – you've ruined my life forever!"
Thus, after years of listening to people blame their parents for all their life problems, it is my conviction that if we could have bypassed our childhood, we'd all be normal! It is sometimes embarrassing listening to adults in mid-life complain about how tough life was as a child, not to mention that people pay lots of money to do it. A colleague recently vented in exasperation:
“It's like, I want to tell people to ‘grow up.’ ‘Get a life.’ I'm not sure at what age we become ‘responsible’ for our own behavior really, but it sure gets old listening to adults blame their parents. They blame their childhood for everything from not having enough money, or growing up on the ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ and other realities of life, for their adult insecurities, fears, and inadequacies.”
From another perspective, Peter Robbins, a thirty-six-year-old educator and long time veteran of the therapeutic couch recounted not long ago:
"For the past four years, I've been seeing a shrink weekly. Much of what we talk about is my childhood and my parents. What I talk about is the effect my parents had on my life. How different both are from the way I am now, yet how many similarities we share in common; some good, some bad. My parents seemed angry with each other much of the time. My mother had a very high-strung personality, and still is. My father was a negative, aggressive individual with few friends. All he could talk about was the War (World War II) and how miserable it was. Returning home from the war, he was an instant daddy with a very low tolerance for anything. He was authoritarian and angry, it seems, most of the time. I was two years old, and he was shell-shocked. Great combo! I was an extremely sensitive child, so when my father flew into a rage about anything, I believed I had done something wrong. With a hysterical mother who approached all crises and life problems by coming unglued, I developed some of those same characteristics. I hated that behavior in her and myself as well. My father was a bully, and always used corporal punishment as his way of disciplining me. It left me frightened of others, especially other adults, and anyone I perceived to be powerful over me. I had to become assertive in my adulthood to deal with those early fears of punishment, even when I didn't deserve it. I hate him for that."
"Oh,” said the therapist, “and that is the basis for your hostility and anger most of the time?"
"Yeah," replied the patient.
"Well," countered the therapist, "it sounds to me as though you're enjoying your misery a bit too much! Change of any type requires letting go of the past and taking responsibility for life in the present. Once you get off your 'pity pot,' I think you'll begin to feel better about your self."
THE MYTH OF THE PERFECT FAMILY
The archetypal family of the 1950s and early 60s, exemplified by television shows such as Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet, and characterizations like Wally and the Beav, have left many of us feeling gypped or cheated out of our fantasy model of the "perfect" childhood. We somehow fantasize or believe this fantasy childhood would have provided us with a perfect, stress-free adult life.
That media-generated and stereotyped family image is a myth and always has been. Many fail to appreciate the personal struggles our own parents went through in raising us. We expected our parents to be perfect in all ways – almost godlike. In our fantasy, if they were perfect, then we too would be perfect and without any problems, conflicts, or stress.
When our parents do not fit our model of what we as children believed they should be like, we blame them. Subconsciously, we develop ways of dealing with their perceived lack of perfection. The result is that we create defense mechanisms to cope with our own ongoing frustrations with parents that did not meet our expectations. There is an irony in that our own unique coping style is based on our parents as role-models, even if we didn't like or approve of their behavior or disciplinary methods, we nonetheless wind up copying their style anyway. James Baldwin, the American writer, must have been thinking about the very same issue when he wrote, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
On the other hand, some parents compensate for their parents behavior by taking the opposite approach to child-rearing. Susan Taggart, a thirty-four-year-old mother of three and an admittedly overly permissive parent, recalled aspects of her childhood that have had profound effects on her selfish and emotional life. In her words:
"My father is a very successful attorney and Judge. When I was four and a half years old, my dad decided that I was too old to be turned in and kissed good night – it was too intimate, I was too old for that kind of physical stuff. From that time on, he wasn't ‘Daddy’ – he was ‘Dad.’ It changed the way my two younger sisters and I related to him because though I didn't understand the change – I thought it was my fault. He's never come clean. He feared that I was too old for him to be hugging and kissing. He never discussed anything of an emotional or intimate nature with his father. I read somewhere that the first thing children want is love, and if they can't be or feel loved, they'd rather be abused than ignored. I guess that's why I got into so much trouble in my early years. I just never felt that love. I have always longed for that intimacy. I envied my friends who had a hugging relationship with their fathers. My father would constantly say to us, ‘You should be thankful for having food and a good home – everything else is a luxury.’ I'm tired of beating myself up, always feeling that his distancing himself from me emotionally was my fault. Intellectually, I understand him, but I will be damned if I will bring my kids up that way!"
THE VULNERABILITY OF CHILDHOOD
Children are emotionally vulnerable. Our childhood fears and anxieties are often accentuated by parents who were too busy or not emotionally equipped themselves to provide the supportive environment we, as adults, fantasized they could or should have. Vulnerability also means not having the life experience or adequate defense mechanisms to understand our fears; to be defenseless, often expecting the worst.
We do not have the luxury of choosing our parents, though there are some followers of the New Age philosophy who believe we do. All things being equal, the choice of whom our parents are is just a role of the dice. Still, our parents were just other people who happen to have been our parents; individuals who dealt with their conflicts and imperfections the best way they knew how.
Resolving the Imperfect Childhood Syndrome
At some point in our life, we must learn to develop a sense of compassion for our parents. With a compassionate heart, we reap the benefit through increased self-acceptance for what we have become. We alone are responsible for our own behavior and emotional condition. We must, therefore, learn to be responsible for our own history as we write it daily. Therein lies the true source of our power.
Since we cannot turn back the hands of time, there are several things that we can all do now to modify negative thoughts and time wastefully spent ruminating about our childhood and what we think we missed:
While each of our childhood’s were unique in their way, few, if any of us, had a "perfect" childhood.
Our parents, while not perfect, probably did the best job they knew how at the time. Hindsight is always 20-20.
As adults, we must sometimes look at our own parents as though they are individuals separate from us. Although it may be difficult initially, we must try to disengage ourselves emotionally from our parents. If we do not like behaviors we share in common, we should change our behavior while allowing for our parents imperfections or idiosyncrasies; i.e., their uniqueness. We should not expect our parents, or anyone else for that matter, to meet our own lofty or unrealistic expectations of how they "should" be or have been. In that sense, we must learn to become psychological orphans, distancing our self as best we can from whom or what our parents are or were to us. It is our obligation to take responsibility for our own lives while gaining a perspective on theirs.
We must all learn to take ourselves less seriously. This is an important part of emotional growth. When we gain a psychological distance from our own self-indulgence, we can see that we must ultimately develop a sense of compassion for our early caregivers, and that must eventually take precedence over our need to blame others for our life situation. In turn, self-acceptance is improved.
Ultimately, to live a full and meaningful life in the present, we have to let go of the past. Many of us hold on to painful memories despite the emotional toll on us. Like a suitcase filled with psychological junk that we are tethered to, we must cut the rope and free ourselves of the excess baggage.
SELF–GROWTH AND THE COMPASSIONATE HEART
Childhood is a time and fact of life. Possibly our childhood didn't fit our expectation of "perfect," but, as the old cliché goes, that was the best hand we were dealt; how we play it is up to us. Our childhood was one step along the path of life and growth. Our vulnerability and our spontaneity was a very important part of our childhood. As adults, we must nurture our spontaneity. When we cease being spontaneous, we loose a special part of our life; an opportunity to experience our personal power and freedom. When we stifle the child within us, we also become psychologically stilted, our behavior feels automatic. More profoundly, we begin to feel a sense of redundancy and meaningless about life itself.
Simply stated, life is time and energy – an opportunity to be and experience the world in our own unique and special way. We needlessly spend too much of our time and energy in ways that block our own self-growth and understanding.
Ultimately, we must develop compassion for our caregivers, while taking a longer view of our youth. Through this process, we, as adults, can become more of what we aspire to be without allowing childhood fears, anger, and other remnants of a distant time, eat us up emotionally in the present.
Compassion for others helps to relieve us of our own pain or anxiety and allows us to see the bigger picture of humanity and our adult role in it.
# # #
© 1995 Gerald Loren Fishkin. All rights reserved.
BABY BOOMER BURNOUT
We grow up believing we can change the world ö that we can have an impact - make a difference or make a fortune. Right! The myths of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver have led many of us to believe in a fantasy lifestyle, and our culture does little to dispel the myth.
Our world often feels like it is spinning far faster than we can accommodate to. We frequently fear that we are going to fall off the planet and sometimes secretly wish that we would, to escape the pressures, the demands. Just entertaining the fantasy of being thousands of light years away or on a desert island is sometimes a relief, but too short lived.
Don't we realize that we cannot even process or encompass all of the information that is continuously before us? Sometimes, the confusion around us is so great, we can not discriminate between the important signals in our life and the noise, that is, the essential need versus the distractions around us that take up our time, wastes our energy, and keeps us further from getting in touch with who we are and what we want. We are often overwhelmed ö whether we realize it or not, and ultimately more of us are becoming depressed, exhausted, and burned out. We live in a society slowly burning out.
Work and pressure have always kept close company, however occupational burnout is becoming more prevalent among those in the 38 to 54 year old age group today. Post - Second World War babies raised on the premise that hard work and dedication to one's profession were the principal steps to a successful life are now experiencing the effects of that myth. We were into television and TV was into us. We had fantasy as our role-model. To indemnify ourselves from feeling, wee learned to escape vicariously through movies, television, and games of all sorts. Alcohol and drugs helped quell the pain or boredom of our daily lives. For many, self-medication has been a way of keeping ones anxiety in check.
For most of us, however, work is our primary vehicle for escaping from the endless and unpredictable problems of contemporary life. Is it any wonder then that for so many, work becomes an island in the middle of the insanity all around us, and is, at the same time, a part of that insanity. Is it any wonder we so frequently hear someone affirm, "I need my job to keep me centered."
"THE INEVITABLE OUTCOME OF ATTEMPTING
TO COPE WITH ONGOING STRESSORS, BE
THEY INTERNAL, EXTERNAL, OR BOTH, IS THE
DEPLETION OF MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL
RESOURCES, WHICH RESULT IN EXHAUSTION,
All too often, we barely have the excess energy necessary to cope with those aspects of our World that demand a response from us, let alone attempt new or creative solutions to the nagging problems and concerns faced by us daily. The pace of life today is incredibly fast ö and the demand to keep up with it is enormous. The inevitable outcome of attempting to cope with ongoing stressors, be they internal, external, or both, is the depletion of mental and emotional resources, which result in exhaustion, i.e., burnout.
Believing ourselves to be indestructible and invincible in our quest for material wealth and material satisfaction, or at minimum, in our struggle to stay afloat financially, for a growing number of baby boomers, the result is a total state of imbalance, not only within themselves, but with every thing and every one around them.
Culture and human spirit have been replaced - the fragments of the "Me Generation" are all around us. The adage, “He who dies with the most toys wins” is more fact than fiction among the upwardly mobile, yet all too frequently find that material wealth is a poor substitute for personal and spiritual contentment.
It should come as no surprise then that the majority of individuals who seek counseling or psychotherapy today show primary symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both.
BABY BOOMER MEN AND STRESS
There is a deeply ingrained myth in our culture that men are supposed to act, feel, and express themselves in a certain way. Men are conditioned from early childhood not to xpress feelings or sensitivity. But rather, are reinforced to show aggression, never vulnerability, sensitivity, or fear. Archaic but true, unrealistic societal expectations ultimately take their toll physically and psychologically. For example, the pressures on contemporary men are unbearable. In a recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 men kill themselves with disease and each other with aggression. Even with recent health improvements through the 1980's, men's death rate from heart disease was 229.6, females only 121.7 per 100,000 population; from malignant cancer, 163.2 for men, 111.0 for women; cirrhosis of the liver, 13.0 for men, 5.6 for women. Suicide rates for males were 19.1 versus 4.9 for females. Male homicides were 13.2 to 4.1 for females.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, males between the ages of 35 ö 44 years have a cumulative death rate of 318.2 per 100,000, compared to 150.6 for females in the same age group. Frightening, but true, men in the same age range as women are dying at a rate of 2 to 1. It would seem that in our culture men are pushed to death-defying behavior to prove their manhood. But that's not death-defying at all; it's death-inviting. Men push themselves to their limits mentally and physically, almost embracing death-defying behaviors with gusto.
The burnout process among baby boomers begins early in life with the learning of unrealistic expectations. Lack of a healthy value system and certain erroneous beliefs which motivate us, result for the boomer, in a state of total frustration with their life. The result often shows itself as anger, hostility, and depression. For the baby boomer, the pursuit of unrealistic goals results, for many, in the depletion of energy, ultimately resulting in exhaustion and burnout.
In the process of living, we tend to lose sight of who we really are and our values and purpose in life. In essence, we are all preoccupied with the problems of everyday life. In reality, we are so intimately connected to the physical events comprising our daily experience that we often cannot distinguish between the material aspects of our existence ö and the deeper level of meaning and purpose that is the foundation of our life. To compensate for the void we feel, we eat, drink, take drugs, spend more than we earn, all to excess. For many, life is out of balance.
Burnout generally manifests itself within the context of something. It is often attributed to the demands of our job or the negative aspects of the work environment. In reality, the burnout process begins long before one's entry into the work force.
How early? Very early. According to the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, more and more infants are being brought to psychotherapists than ever before. In fact, 20 times more infants are being seen for emotional problems than were seen 10 years ago, dealing primarily with emotional problems such as depression, incessant crying, frantic shaking and lethargy. The relationship between parent and child becomes the focus of treatment. All too often, a lonely parent or parents become pathologically dependent on their babies, stunting normal independence. On the other side are those parents who displace their aggression upon the child using corporal punishment as their mode of expression. Female spouses are not immune as scapegoats of their husband's frustration and aggression. According to the March of Dimes, Birth Defects Foundation, 3 to 4 million American women are battered each year, resulting in 20% of all hospital emergency room visits by women. As a result, every year in America about 4,000 women die from battering. About 60% of men who physically assault their wives or partners, also assault their children.
BABY BOOMER WOMEN, WORK, AND STRESS
With 65 percent of mothers now in the work force, the pressures of caring for children while maintaining a decent standard of living are growing. Today, women juggle careers, child care, housework, and frequently strained marriages. For our nations 11 million single mothers, the problems are worsened by the fact that one-third are living below the poverty line.
With only a small portion of top corporate jobs held by women, female executives continue to face a bias barrier. And, despite rapid growth in the number of females in managerial positions, they remain concentrated in lower-paying, sex segregated positions. Recent studies by the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor show that while the nations 53 million employed women have made substantial gains in attaining executive level positions ö now holding about 40% of such jobs, the three occupations with the highest concentration of women are low-paying clerical jobs: 4 million secretaries, 2 million cashiers, and 2 million bookkeepers.
Aside from feelings of victimization that plague many women in the work force today, they are also torn between their role as parent ö often filling both mother and father roles ö and having to work full-time to support the family. Guilt for not having the luxury of being home to provide closer supervision of their child or children compounds the frustration and guilt many women feel.
Ultimately, for many women today, financial difficulties, perceived loss of control over their life, and feeling victimized, results in frustration, repressed anger, and ultimately, depression. In fact, females are twice as likely as men to suffer depression. In our country, one in every four females will suffer clinical depression in her lifetime. In that regard, 73% of all prescribed mood altering drugs are taken by females; 90% of the prescribing physician is not a psychiatrist. Marital problems are the most common factor related to depressed females in therapy. Females appear to be more affected by interpersonal relationships than are men in our culture. Or is it that men are more effective in masking their feelings?
Suicide rates among professional women are rising rapidly. Today, the rate is as high for females as for males.
THE BABY'S OF BABY BOOMERS ─ MORE STRESS IN THE 2000’s
There is important data indicating that young folks are stressed even before they hit the labor market. Data regarding the mental and emotional health and value systems of the graduating class of 1992 presents an even more alarming picture of our youth today.
Freshmen entering American colleges and universities in 1988 were the most anxious and emotionally unstable ever measured, according to their self-descriptions in the 23rd Annual Survey of Incoming Freshmen conducted by the American Council on Education through UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program. More than 300,000 students entering 585 schools participated. For the first time in 22 years, the number of freshmen saying they smoke cigarettes increased more than 10% from the previous year. A record 72% indicated that making money was a very important factor in their decision to attend college. A record number reported "feeling depressed" during the past year (10.5%, up from 8.3% in 1987 and 8.2% in 1985).
These changes were accompanied by a decline in the proportion of freshmen who feel above average in their emotional health when compared with their peers ö 56.1% in 1988 compared to 60.3% in 1985. The data point to a growing interest in financial security and job opportunities and a declining tendency to view the college years as a time for learning and personal development. The increase in smoking, the rising number of students who feel depressed and overwhelmed, even before hitting the work force, and the decline in self-assessed emotional health are all indicators of rising stress among the young.
Student values and life goals have shown dramatic shifts as well. Freshmen responses showing the strongest upward trend relate to "being very well-off financially." Over the past 20 years, student endorsement of this value has increased dramatically from 43.8% to 70.9% of entering freshmen. In contrast, the value showing the most precipitous decline involves "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," reflecting a common underlying shift in student values over the past decade. More specifically, it could be argued that acceptance of the goal of making a lot of money obviates the need for many students to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. Indeed, it may be that some students view making money as a kind of 'philosophy of life' in itself. Most of the value items on the survey showing large increases in recent years are related to money, power and status: being very well off financially, being an authority, having administrative responsibility for others and obtaining recognition.
By contrast, values showing the largest declines involve altruistic activities and social concerns: helping others, promoting racial understanding, cleaning up the environment, participating in community action programs, and keeping up with political affairs. Creative and artistic goals also showed declines during this period. In short, student values have shifted radically toward rising materialistic and power needs versus social and humanitarian goals.
These stress effects are not limited to male students alone. Many of the female grads entering the labor market will also start out inadequate to cope with the demands and pressures of life. A 1986 survey of New York's 277,000 female undergraduates reported by that state's Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, indicated that nearly one in five college women showed signs of alcohol dependency contributing to what experts have indicated was a slew of health, sexual and financial problems caused by drinking. That study showed that drinking by college women 23 years of age or younger is twice that of their non-college peers. Of these female undergraduates sampled, 40,000 were considered heavy drinkers, consuming two or more drinks daily. Twenty-one percent showed an "alcohol dependence," reporting three or more signs, such as blackouts or early morning drinking ö that indicated a drinking problem.
THE BABY BOOMER WORKER AND STRESS
Baby boomers make up a broad spectrum of the work force ö from blue collar workers to heads of state. The demands in the workplace are also so great that even priests are burning out at an enormous rate, according to a panel report from the committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It is a serious and substantial morale problem, that afflicts Roman Catholic priests, many of whom are overworked, lonely and sexually troubled, says the report."
Additionally, since 1980, over 2 million middle management and professionals have been laid off of their jobs as a result of corporate cutbacks, reorganization, takeovers or other factors, - thus giving the once protected professional employee a sample of what blue collar employees have faced for years. The potential for loss of employment and manipulation within the workplace; the possibility of being fired or terminated and the consequent feelings of horror regarding the prospect of having to find other employment is an abomination to most.
According to a study undertaken by one commercial business broker, in more than half of the 20,000 sales each year, boredom and burnout top the list of reasons why private business owners decide to sell the companies they created.
STRESS IN THE WORKPLACE AND AT HOME ─ WHERE IS IT SAFE?
The nemesis of work life today for most of us is that the effects of our work overflow into the leisure or recreational aspects of their life. Hence, everything becomes a duty, a responsibility. Ultimately, the stressed-out individual begins to see survival itself as a responsibility, a duty, a chore!
It makes little difference today what one does for a living, or whether one is even employed. Burnout doesn't discriminate. A survey of 1,000 business people in North America and Australia offered some significant findings further reinforcing the fact that the lives of business people in the 1980's were apparently all work and no play.(8) The data also lends support to the fact that maybe we need to reevaluate our individual priorities regarding work and family life:
85% work more than 45 hours a week
81% experience stress; 48% feel stress every day
89% take work home with them
65% work more than one weekend a month
42% don't read to their children
53% spend less than two hours a week looking after their children
It is a fact that psychological disorders among male and female workers in both the public and private sectors are one of the fastest growing categories of occupational disability claims in this decade. According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, stress-related injuries now account for roughly 14% of all occupational disease claims, up from less than 5% in 1980.10 During 1988, benefit payments for mental problems increased 27% nationally over the preceding year.
While there are many similarities among those experiencing burnout, individual differences in how one expresses their burnout often relate to the type of work they do. For example, those working in the area of human services often reflect their burnout by a lessened willingness to nurture and help others ö every persons need is perceived as an unbearable temptation to act out in anger rather than with the compassion originally felt or motivated one to pursue such a career. I have noted that among physicians who experienced burnout, the patient is often perceived as the enemy!
In the business domain, often, when managers burn out, it becomes visible to co-workers as a loss of drive and willingness to succeed. They also manifest their stress by insulating themselves from their work projects, becoming detached and alienated from both the work and co-workers as well. In a recent report prepared by the California Workers Compensation Institute15, mental stress injuries have increased to 700% between 1979 and 1988, while disabling physical work injuries of all types increased only 17%. Women, according to the report, account for a growing proportion of mental stress claims, filing nearly 2 out of 3 disability claims. There has been a definite shift in occupational health problems away from acute effects toward chronic effects of toxic exposures and reactions to stressful working conditions.w The number of physical injuries as a percentage of the work force is actually declining.
BEWARE OF THE HOLIDAY BLUES
The Holiday Blues. It's not a new boy band. It's not a reality TV show or a best-selling book series. It's an experience that yearly affects millions of people.
For many of us, holiday expectations are based upon early life experiences. The holidays represent a magical time remembered from our youth, full of family get-togethers and the giving and receiving of gifts. The child in us recalls those early times of wonderment and joy, excitement and surprise. Childhood fantasies and warm expectations live within all of us.
But as the years pass, reality and childhood dreams often collide. As we become burdened with adult responsibilities, the spontaneity of our youth slips away.
Around this time of the year, the desire to be taken care of, to be a child again, to experience the excitement and anticipation of the holidays, creeps into our consciousness – and our unconsciousness.
Our high expectations for the holidays often eclipse the reality of the situation: Santa Claus isn't found outside ourselves – he resides within each of us. It is we who must make things happen; we are each responsible for the joy and spirit of the holidays – as well as any negative consequences from our holiday experience.
We often hear people say how lonely they feel during the holiday season. The empty feelings that surface may be overwhelming for those who have lost a loved one or a dear friend, as the reality of the impermanence of life, and our separateness in this world, becomes intensified.
For others, buying gifts creates additional conflicts and stress that can add to the Holiday Blues. And then there are those whose excessive partying, drinking, drugs, and overeating add to the feeling of depression.
If what I've said thus far sounds terribly pessimistic, fear not. There are positive ways to cope with the Holiday Blues. To make this season a happier time for all of us, the following is my gift list:
STEPS FOR OVERCOMING THE HOLIDAY BLUES
1. Attempt to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook. Recognize that the holidays don't have to be a horribly negative experience. In fact, they can be a positive one. Just lower your expectations and maintain a realistic baseline of experiences so that your wishes and reality can find a happy medium.
2. Try to control your excesses during the holidays, especially your alcohol consumption (if you still drink). Remember that alcohol is an anesthetic that reduces your ability to function effectively – despite the fact that we call that extra eggnog "holiday cheer!" Keep in mind that alcohol is a depressant that can act as a major mood dampener and can significantly contribute to depression.
3. Always remember that it is better to give than to receive. Consider giving someone less fortunate a gift that represents an extended hand of love and caring. This can fulfill your need for sharing while making someone else feel a lot less lonely and isolated at this sometimes painful time of year. When we truly give to another unconditionally, just that act of compassion can fill our own void, taking us out of our own psychological and emotional space in service of another.
4. Contact friends and family with whom you have not communicated for some time. Bridge the gap of time and space. This reaching out will bring others a little closer.
5. Give up the expectation that you have to spend every hard-earned dollar on elaborate gifts for others. Remember, the most important part of the holiday season is sharing gifts from your heart, not from your American Express account.
6. Childhood traumas will often resurface during the holiday season. Try to maintain a positive perspective on life. If childhood traumas do resurface, picture them melting away as though they were a block of ice. Maintaining hostility, hatred, bitterness, or other negative emotions is a waste of energy and time.
If we can give ourselves some of the gifts on this list, our holiday season will be more meaningful, not only for ourselves but also for those around us.
Try to remember that the most important aspects of the holidays are not tallied by dollars spent and woes collected over how broke we are at the beginning of the new year, but by how enriched we are for having truly shared ourselves with those who are dear to us, or those less fortunate. So think positive and have a wonderful, joyous and safe holiday season.
The published work of Gerald Loren Fishkin, Ph.D.