For several weeks recently, my wife, Sara, and I were up to our elbows in cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, box tape and marking pens. Our son Larry and his family were moving to a new house, and we had volunteered to help with the packing and unpacking.
Like many parents, Sara and I like spending time with our children and grandchildren. Helping our son to move was a good chance to share in their experience. We also liked the sense of teamwork and the feeling of being needed. And because we're retired, it was easy for us to find the time to help.
As I wrapped dishes and packed books, I thought about all the decisions people must make when they retire -- decisions involving Social Security, pensions, and savings and investments. But new retirees often ignore the "other side" of retirement -- decisions that can have a major impact on the quality of their lives, such as: "What will I do with my time?" "How can my spouse and I enjoy our leisure years together?" And "How can I maintain a good relationship with my children and grandchildren?"
I find that last question especially important. Now, after five years in retirement, it is easy for me to see that strong family ties can provide retirees with a valuable support system that enhances their lives -- especially as they age and encounter illness. Sooner or later, we all will need our children.
This fact could be a problem for some people. The experts tell me that if retirees haven't had good relations with their adult children before they retire, it's doubtful those relations will improve.
"The good relationships tend to get magnified, and the poor relationships tend to stay as poor as they are," said Linda K. George, associate director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. "Preexisting patterns tend to carry over into retirement.
"I'm not saying it is too late to improve family relationships," George said. "I certainly don't believe that. I will say it is not typical to change them for the good."
George was one of several experts I consulted in an effort to explore the interaction between retirees and their adult children and grandchildren -- and to see how these relationships affect the quality of retirees' lives.
As residents of a retirement community, Sara and I have examples all around us of the roles that our fellow retirees, their adult children and grandchildren play in one another's lives. The stories we hear range from heartwarming to heartbreaking.
Some people spend large chunks of time with their adult children and their grandchildren, including holidays and weekends. Others rarely see or hear from them, whether because of geography or family conflicts.
Dorothy Cantor, a Westfield, N.J., psychologist and president of the American Psychological Foundation, talked about these conflicts.
"In some cases," she said, "it may be that the parents pushed the child away because the child took a path they didn't deem acceptable." For instance, she said, a child may have chosen a career path that the parents disliked, or married someone who wasn't acceptable to the parents.
Cantor, who writes about retirement transitions in her book, "What Do You Want to Do When You Grow Up?" (Little Brown, January 2001), said she believes it is possible for parents to reach out to their children and talk about problems, even if those problems began 20 or 30 years ago.
"To hold on to the original dismay or disapproval at this stage of the game wouldn't serve anybody well," Cantor said.
And, she added, "It is okay to ask children for forgiveness. We all are imperfect. We all make mistakes as parents. We need to be able to acknowledge those mistakes."
Retirement, with its free time, clearly offers a new opportunity for parents to bond with their children and grandchildren -- especially if those bonds have been weakened or severed in the past.
Fortunately, the experts tell me, many retirees have reasonably good relations with their adult children and grandchildren.
I know that some of our friends care for their grandchildren when the kids' parents are busy at work or out of town on business. Other friends help out in their sons' and daughters' businesses.
But there is a delicate balance to be achieved here. It is not surprising to hear about retirees who want to spend too much time with their adult children and others who want to spend too little. Likewise, some adult children may want their parents close by, while others prefer a more distant relationship.
As I listen to other retirees, I am struck by the extent to which their conversations focus on the activities of their children and grandchildren. Many of us, I find, tend to live vicariously through them. Their successes become our successes -- and if they have failures, we rarely mention them.
Getting together with family members for almost any reason is important to many of our acquaintances. A friend recently told me about a long trip she made to attend the "graduation" of a grandchild from nursery school.
David J. Ekerdt, a sociology professor and gerontology scientist at the University of Kansas, has made many studies of retirement behavior. "We were astonished at the extent to which people spent time just interacting with their adult children," he said. But, Ekerdt added, that finding may not reflect a totally happy picture.
Adult children, seeing their parents retire, may quickly assume that they are available for baby-sitting, repair work and even as a source of money, Ekerdt said. The parents, however, may have other plans for their free time.
That being the case, new retirees may find it useful to talk to their adult children about what kinds of help the children expect and what the parents are willing and able to provide. That may keep expectations from getting out of control.
I've often heard grandparents say, "I love being with my grandkids, but after a while I'm happy to hand them back to their parents."
At times, retirees complain that they have had to become the disciplinarians of their grandchildren, reports Ithaca College professor Joel S. Savishinsky in his book, "Breaking the Watch: The Meanings of Retirement in America" (Cornell University Press, October 2000).
Savishinsky, who chronicled the retirements of 26 men and women, quotes one grandmother as saying: "The problem for us is that when our grandchildren come here, they're so undisciplined and unscheduled -- the parents set few limits -- that we are the ones who create rules for them. What a reversal! Now it's the parents who're indulgent, too afraid to 'stifle the kids,' and we grandparents lay down the law."
On the other hand, as grandchildren get older, some retirees face a different problem. "The lament that I hear mostly from older adults is that their grandchildren are so busy that they have a hard time seeing them. And that can be very painful," said Lenore M. Pomerance, a clinical social worker who practices in Washington.
That experience may be particularly painful, Pomerance suggests, for people who "have expectations that maybe they can be more involved as grandparents than they were as parents."
Sometimes retirees can create family stress by being overly dependent on adult children simply because the retirees don't have much else to keep them busy, said Duke University's George: "Adult children come to me and say: 'How can I encourage my parents to get some broader interests? How can I encourage them to do more with friends their own age? How can I encourage them to develop their own hobbies?' "
These adult children, she said, "feel like they have suddenly become responsible for, not the physical well-being, but the happiness and the pleasures in life of their parents. And that can be very rough if they have their own pretty busy lives, working and raising their children."
How should the adult children deal with that problem, I asked. George replied: "Tell them the truth, that you love them as much as you ever did. But this style is not working. You'd rather have less time, but higher-quality time."
Inevitably, the aging process plays a role in the relationship between parents and adult children. The simple realities of aging -- that the parents may have relatively few years left in which to enjoy their kids and grandkids, that the children won't have their parents around forever -- can help bring both sides closer.
By all accounts, relationships with adult children change dramatically when a retiree's spouse dies. In our retirement community, I have seen ample evidence of the attention and concern that children lavish on a parent who has lost his or her spouse. It is at that point that adult children may become part of the "sandwich" generation, the group of middle-aged people who find themselves caring for both a parent and their young children at the same time.
Sara and I have been through that experience, and we know it is not easy, financially or energy-wise. But we recognize that someday, as we age, our children may have to assume similar responsibilities for us.
Kansas University's Ekerdt believes that, when it comes to kids, history is on our side: They will be there when we need them.
"It is our children that will take care of us and look after us and sustain us when we are older," he said. "It has been that way, and it continues to be that way."
And that is a comforting thought.
Stan Hinden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company