Time, Energy and Money: The Keys to Independence for Adolescents and the Elderly
 
After spending the last week with my 82-year old mother, I find myself thinking about how many comparisons can be drawn between the plight of the elderly and the struggles of many adolescents.  In both age groups, the underlying theme is a fight for independence. While my mother was once a confident, accomplished, and energetic woman, she is now working to exhaustion to maintain her abilities to handle daily tasks and to comprehend her ever-changing world. It wasn’t that long ago that I viewed her as someone who believed she could do anything she set her mind to. Her willingness to learn whatever was necessary to reach her goals is one of the characteristics that I have always admired about her. She still has that desire to learn and manage hurdles but her frustrations lie in physical limitations and limited understanding of rapidly changing technologies. She is often frustrated because her pace is not aligned with the pace of the world around her.

The adolescents I talk to in my counseling practice are largely very motivated to become independent adults. They have sometimes idealistic visions of what they want to accomplish in their futures and they exhaust themselves trying to lay the groundwork that will allow them to achieve their goals. Whether that includes attending college or learning a trade or becoming a professional athlete, virtually every teenager I know imagines their independence and all of the perks that come with it. Adolescents often cannot imagine the obstacles that might prevent their visions from materializing and they become frustrated at the pace with which independence is achieved.  
 
Another area of common ground between adolescents and the elderly is a fight against boredom. I am struck by the number of students who complain to me that they are bored. It doesn’t seem to matter how much homework they have to do, how many extracurricular activities they are involved in or how close they are to inexpensive cultural activities or outdoor recreation, the mantra of the teenager is a fight against boredom. Maybe in a world where teenagers are expected to be busy, many suffer from participating in activities that don’t invoke their passions. They have things to do but they don’t view these things as interesting, and, to be fair, many interesting outlets for adolescents are expensive and money can be hard to come by for a teenager.

Boredom is also a significant problem for the elderly, particularly once it becomes difficult to quickly move from one activity to the next. Most people sleep fewer hours when they get older, so filling up to 20 hours a day with interesting activities becomes a formidable challenge. The senior envies the abundance of energy in the adolescent and the adolescent wishes sleep wasn’t necessary. One of my teenage clients wisely reminded me of a saying he had heard, “teenagers have energy and time but no money, adults have energy and money but no time, and the elderly have money and time but no energy.”

I feel like the lives of both ends of the population would be improved if those in the middle could somehow manage to spend just a little more time providing guidance, compassion, and care for their children and parents.  A professor in one of my family counseling classes once advised that if parents could manage to spend just 15 minutes a day giving their children undivided attention it would resolve many seemingly intractable problems. She suggested that parents offer each of their children 15 minutes to do whatever they wish together, with the exception of watching TV. I’ve often given that same advice to the parents of the teenagers in my practice with great results. As much as they crave independence, teenagers need the guidance and connection to their parents. Similarly, the elderly in this country are often left to fend for themselves as they navigate failing health and loneliness. Perhaps the same advice would ring true for this generation as well. If we could somehow manage 15 extra minutes a day devoted to our elderly parents, whether that  occurs with a phone call or a visit, I suspect the quality of life for the elderly would improve dramatically.  
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