Anne, elders and youth in the digital age

I celebrated Mother’s Day by having a home cooked meal with my mother, father and grandmother. My grandma Anne ate, laughed and shared stories of the Catholic nuns who used to walk around her classroom with a ruler, ready to slap her on the wrist if she tripped up when reciting a prayer. 

It was funny, eye opening, and slightly terrifying.  I knew she enjoyed dinner when she asked if she could take home leftovers, something she rarely does. At 95 her vision was a little less sharp and her balance a bit more shaky each day, but she was still able to tell a joke and light up a room with her smile. It was a beautiful thing to see her have a great time on her day, and to recognize all that she has given in her life as a mother, grandmother and elder.

Two weeks later she fell asleep and did not wake up. This is not a sympathy piece. This is not a eulogy or obituary. My grandmother’s death has evoked a lot of emotions and thoughts about her, about our youth, about how we treat our elders, and about life. 

Anne grew up in Northeast Minneapolis, as Polish as they come. She was born on Feb. 20, 1920 to immigrant parents from Warsaw. Anne saw many changes in her life from women’s suffrage to the Great Depression. She held the title of “fastest sewer” at a cap manufacturing company in North Minneapolis where she worked for years before becoming one of the famous “Rosie the Riveters.”

Anne was so committed to hard work that she removed the line guard on her safety uniform so she could work faster. She went on to raise five children and seven grandchildren. 

Anne was one of many in a generation who made sacrifices during some of our country’s most trying times so that we can all live a little better. I can’t help but think of her when I catch myself forgetting to have gratitude for everything I’ve been blessed with. I can’t help but feel guilt and reflect on her life when complaining about how slow my Internet is. What sacrifices have I made? What truly tough times have I endured?

As America’s baby boomers grow older, what will Generation Y do to make our elders lives better? One-third of our nation’s population will be 65 or older by the year 2050. With rising costs of health care and nursing home facilities, how will our older loved ones get by on a post-recession economy and the fate of our social security retirement funds in jeopardy? 

According to Pew Research Center, 24 percent of teens go online almost constantly. This is not an exaggeration, and literally means that teenagers every waking moment is spent on the Internet.  An Urban Institute report indicated that young people today will have the lowest marriage rates of any generation proceeding them, and 30 percent of women in Generation Y will not be married by the age of 40. 

This is a glaring statistic, and several theories have attempted to identify the reason behind this from the economic recession to where you live to political affiliation to adoption of or lack thereof religious practices. 

Out of all this data one thing is clear — young people today are living vastly different lives in an entirely different world from that of our grandparents. 

Anne left a note prior to her death that read, “I was born, I blinked, and it was over. No buildings are named after me, no monuments erected in my honor. But I did have the chance to know and love each and every friend as well as all my family members. How much more blessed can a person be?”

Imagine if our youth lived life with that mentality? The data suggests that our younger generation is living a more individualistic lifestyle, anxiously saving their money in an unstable economy while conversely spending money through arbitrary means of self-gratification in a digital world. 

What if the pursuit of Facebook likes were replaced with genuine human interactions? If more time were spent in the outdoors rather than on the Internet? 

I want to believe that we as human beings still have the visceral desire to connect to one another and the earth, to appreciate the simple things in life, to put the phone down, and to enjoy the precious time we have with one another. 

I learned many things from grandmother. Before she passed I would visit her and just sit.  She couldn’t see very well, but her sense of humor was sharp, and her warmth for those she loved was infectious, so we would just talk, laugh, and be present.  In doing so she taught me how to live in the fleeting moments. Not in the past and not worrying about what I have to do next.  Just there with her.

Ryan Stopera is a social worker and community organizer in Minneapolis. He is on the board of directors of MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and the Lyndale Neighborhood Association.