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posted: 6/22/2012 1:42 PM

We need to take care of each other

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"Hold my hand, Dad."

My then 6-year-old son, excited to be at his favorite ice cream parlor but a bit overwhelmed by the crowd, needed some reassurance.

"Hold my hand, Dad."

A male voice behind me echoed my son's words. Smiling, I turned to discover a man my own age talking to his father, who also seemed a bit overwhelmed by his surroundings.

"I'm 86 years old, Son; I gave up holding your hand a long time ago," the old man responded.

"Well then, sit down over there until I come back," his son said.

Somewhat exasperated, the younger man got back in line.

"Dad, I'm gonna sit down too," my son said as he took a seat on a nearby bench.

So there they sat -- 6 and 86 -- while we two aging baby boomers played waiter.

Life is funny the way it seems to fold back on itself. I wondered -- did this old man bring his son to this very same ice cream parlor 40 years ago? Would my own son hold my hand a few decades from now when I might be a bit tired and confused?

As the postwar generation moves into -- and through -- middle age, we are confronted more and more with our limits and our mortality. We work and play with a bit less energy. We can see more signs of wear and tear on our bodies, minds and souls. The serious illness, even death, of someone "our age" is not as unusual as it used to be. We are no longer convinced that we can change the world for the better. And we sometimes feel caught between our children, who still need us, and our parents who seem to need us more and more.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, you might say we are in a generational midlife crisis. Because there are so many of us around, we baby boomers can too easily feed off each other's existential angst.

I don't have some particularly brilliant point to make here. I do think, though, my experience at the ice cream parlor addressed in some way this middle-age malady many of us find ourselves in.

Ultimately, my story is simply a tale of people taking care of people. Fathers and sons here, but if we look around us we can see the same caretaking between mothers and their children, or brothers and sisters, or just friends. Even strangers will take care of each other more often than we might imagine.

Developmental psychologists suggest that as we reach middle age, we tend to naturally focus on our relationships more. This seems to be especially true of men, who are more likely to spend their young adult years trying to conquer the world. Male or female, however, as we age we increasingly value the people around us and the roles they play in our lives. Ultimately, such a focus may be a lot more important to the quality of our lives than climbing the last rung on the corporate ladder, moving into that bigger house or a face lift and tummy tuck.

We baby boomers are getting older. We may never change the world the way we thought we would, but it seems we still can change each other's worlds. Maybe that's what counts.