Written by ajdnqp93 on October 7, 2017 in

Our Guest: Dr. Ruth Nemzoff

About This Episode

While teenagers, children figure out their parents aren’t all knowing. So why not, as adults, admit that and embark upon a new relationship? After all, what worked in your day may not work in theirs: Do you assume that your child will financially support you in retirement, and do you predictably cave in to babysitting the grandchildren out of obligation, as your parents might have? Schooled in more careers than she can remember — including state legislator and late-blooming author of a book on parenting adult children – Dr. Ruth Nemzoff gently reveals how being honest and clear about expectations proves critical to establishing, and keeping, genuine adult-to-adult relationships.

5 Things You’ll Learn

  1. Causes of breakdowns into transitions to adult-to-adult relationships
  2. Shelving fantasies of what we wanted our children to be and embracing their reality
  3. Adding to your child’s life to help them where they are and where they’re going
  4. Teaching children adult responsibilities through incremental learning
  5. Shared moments that leave a more lasting, loving legacy than I-know-best “big talk”

Transcript

Announcer:

Welcome to our podcast called “Love, Longevity,” where we help you to live longer, better. Our host, Michael FitzPatrick, founder and CEO of the Long Term Living Association, otherwise known as the LTLA, interviews thought leaders, innovators, and experts across the country on a variety of issues related to aging and longevity, finances, legal, legacy and philanthropy, health and wellness, relationships and family, housing and transition, caregiving, and more. The goal of the LTLA and this podcast is to change the paradigm as to how seniors and their families view and plan for aging and longevity issues. Now, join us as we welcome today’s very special guest on this episode of “Love, Longevity.”

Michael:

Okay, welcome everybody to our podcast call today with our special guest, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff. And the title of the podcast today that Dr. Ruth is going to share with us is called “You and Your Adult Children Experiencing Longevity Together.” So, welcome, Ruth. Can you hear us okay?

Ruth:

I can.

Michael:

Fantastic. My name’s Michael FitzPatrick, and I am the host of the podcast today. I’m going to give the listeners a little bio, a little background, so they have some context as to who you are, for those that don’t know you, because your background is super impressive, and it was one of the main reasons that we wanted to interview you, because you are, without a doubt, an inspiration and a thought leader in this area of aging and longevity issues and communication and conversations and so on. So just to give our listeners some context here, Dr. Ruth is the author of Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family and Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children and a frequent speaker on family dynamics. She’s a resident scholar of Brandeis University Women Studies Research Center. Dr. Nemzoff was assistant minority leader of the New Hampshire legislature and New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare. She holds a doctorate in social policy from Harvard University and an MA in counseling from Columbia University, and a BA from Bernard College. And her papers are archived at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library. Dr. Nemzoff has served as a trustee of Lasell Village Retirement Community. Currently, she’s on the board of InterfaithFamily and is the advice columnist for The American Israelite. She and her husband have four adult children, four in-law children, and ten grandchildren, but I think that number might be inaccurate from our conversation, is that right?

Ruth:

Yes, we’ve got one more on the way.

Michael:

Got one more on the way, how fantastic is that? Congratulations. We are so excited to have you on this call today, Ruth, and I think that the listeners, whoever listens to the podcast here, is going to get some wonderful value and some great takeaways. They’ll learn some information, and that’s really our main goal. Through education, information, and inspiration, to help create some change where people can take tangible little tidbits and bring it into their life from years and years and years of experience. Why don’t we start off, before we jump into the title of the podcast, with a little background so that the listeners can understand who you are. What is your backstory, where did you grow up, tell us about your family a little bit, what are some of the things you enjoy doing in your spare time, some of those types of things first.

Ruth:

I grew up in Brooklyn, Massachusetts. I wasn’t from a wealthy family, but I was from a family that valued education, and every penny was spent on educating my sister and myself, and I’ve been very fortunate to have a wonderful education, and I’ve tried to pass that on, in whatever opportunities I can educationally, to my children and my grandchildren. In terms of hobbies, I like to travel, I like to swim, I like to bike, I like to do yoga, and I find, as I am now in the age of aches and pains, that I sometimes have to modify my exercise, and I still ride a regular bike here in Boston, but up in New Hampshire where the hills have grown a little higher, I use an electric bike so that I can still be active, and I just use adaptive technology.

Michael:

That’s fantastic. Your story is an inspiration, your life so far, we’ll hear more about it. They say in life, we’re either going to be a warning, or an example, and so far, without a doubt, you are a wonderful, shining example of what’s possible.

Ruth:

I’ve been lucky.

Michael:

Luck favors the prepared mind.

Ruth:

That is so true. So true.

Michael:

What did you do before your current business, your current career? What led you to becoming or doing what you do now? Was there a turning point that drove you that direction?

Ruth:

I have had actually about six or seven careers. I’ve actually lost count. I was always trying to combine career and family and volunteer life, because I think you need all those pieces to be well-rounded and to fully enjoy life. The sad thing is always good in one arena or not so good in another, so it’s nice to have a lot of different arenas. Anyway, I began as a teacher, taught fifth grade, then became a program director for programs for people with disabilities, and then I became a legislator, rose to a position of leadership, then became appointed Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare, and I was tired from that, because the governor had a different philosophy than me. I consider that a great honor. I then had to look back on my childhood and think about what other dreams and hopes that I have, and I had wanted to become a professor, so I became a professor, and I taught for fifteen years at Bentley University, until my department was deleted during the 2008 recession. I thought about, well, what should I do next? And opportunity not? And a person, a colleague, asked if I would write a book with her about parenting adult children, and I said, “sure! I’d love to.” And I thought it was a perfect way to weave my life together, because it dealt with social policy, it deals with personal family relationships, and it also took my academic training to write the book. So I started writing with someone else, and we tried for four years to get a contract, and the young editor said, “my parents don’t parent me.” Meanwhile, every cocktail party I went to, all people talked about were their adult children. So I decided I was going to write this book alone, and voila! There I was.

Michael:

What was the first one you wrote? You wrote Don’t Roll Your Eyes —

Ruth:

I wrote first, in 2008, when I was sixty-six years old, I got my first book contract, and it was Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children.

Michael:

Let’s dive into that, because I think that topic is something that is not only very important, but I think it’s on a lot of people’s minds and/or they’re experiencing it as we speak right now. In other words, the shift from the parent to the child, to adult to adult, etc. But let’s dive a little deeper in that. Tell us, how do you begin that conversation with adult children? What are some of the elements that are involved with that? Give us some of your experience and tidbits from your book on this issue in particular.

Ruth:

I think that one of the greatest challenges is morphing our relationships from that of a dependent child and the all-knowing parent to one of true adults. I think there are several ways you could do this. First of all, I think we have to know ourselves, because, believe me, our children are the best psychologists going, right? They know us, every smile, every frown. And so we really need to know ourselves, because when our children say, “mom, you’re just saying that because you want to brag to your friends,” there may be a grain of truth in that. So that’s the first thing, is to know ourselves. And then the second thing is to say goodbye to fantasy and hello to reality. I used to [inaudible 09:02], Michael, because I [inaudible 09:03]. Okay.

Michael:

Yeah, absolutely.

Ruth:

And what do I mean by that? I mean, we may, when our children, just before they’re born, of course they’re going to be tall and thin and blonde, and they’re going to be short and dark and adorable, and they’re going to be everything. They’re going to be Thomas Edison and a great athlete, and they’re going to be laidback, and life goes on and we are what we are. So I think we need to let go of the fantasy of what we wanted our children to be and accept them for what they are. And enjoy the very best of them. And that’s an important task, and a difficult one. And third one is to think about how you can add to your child’s life in a way that helps them, in a way that both of you find more joy than displeasure. And I would say no relationship is perfect, and that’s what makes them so interesting.

Michael:

Those three things, by themselves, I think, has tremendous value. Know ourselves, knowing the adult and/or the adult children, both parties knowing themselves?

Ruth:

That’s wonderful, but we can only control ourselves. So, we have to know ourselves.

Michael:

Right. You said know ourselves, meaning just in general.

Ruth:

Right. Each individual. You need to understand your own motives, your hopes, your disappointment. How much are you putting on your child, how much is it just yourself?

Michael:

What age do you see this transition taking place?

Ruth:

I think it starts some time in high school, and one of the great confusions is, we really don’t know when adulthood begins. You look at our laws and you see that at age sixteen you can drive, but you can stay on your parents’ healthcare until age twenty-six, or at least now you can, and at age twenty-one you become a full-fledged adult, but in some states, you can’t drink until twenty-one. We’re very confused about when it begins, and the truth is, it slowly begins and we can look back to all the ways we’ve successfully brought up our children. Parents often think that they didn’t do a good job, but often, we didn’t do so badly. We taught them to cross the street, right? And how did we do that? We did that by incremental learning, right? We first take them and we teach them how you look both ways for the cars, and then you slowly cross, and it is through that kind of incremental learning that we teach them all those things. And we can do that again with adulthood. Gradually, we let them pay their own bills, we require them to certain responsibilities, and if they do them well, we reward them. That’s the kind of looking back on all the skills and things we’ve done before that have been successful, and for some of us, we feel a lot of things have been successful, and some of us, less successful. But all of us have fed our children and clothed them, and we’ve had some success.

Michael:

Mmhm. Now, what you’re saying in the third piece, think about how you can add to your child’s life. What are some of the things that you’ve seen that cause the breakdown where they can’t transition into this new adult-to-adult relationship. What are some of the contributing factors to the unhealthy side of this equation, and then what are some of the indicators for ways this can be made healthier in families that you’ve seen, that have done it more successfully in that capacity?

F: I would say, I would prefer not to label “healthy” or “unhealthy,” because that is so societally dependent. In some societies, the child living in the house is not considered a bad thing. In many societies, adult children live in their house until they get married, and sometimes after marriage, and that’s considered perfectly healthy. In our society, that is changing while one is single, but once one marries, if one marries, that’s still considered kind of dependent. So I don’t want to put labels on it. But what I would say is that when we are still trying to control our children’s decisions, I think our role as parents is to be, as we morph and the children become older, as the post-high school years, is to be a good sounding board, to give them our advice and counsel, but not to expect them to follow it necessarily, and to suggest to them that they perhaps also seek advice and counsel with more expertise in that particular question than you, the parent, might have. So it’s a way of saying, “I’m not all-knowing anymore. I do have opinions, and here’s what my opinion’s based on, so you can reevaluate and see if that works for you. Am I aware of the environment enough so that my advice, which might have worked in my day, also will work in your day.”

Michael:

How — not that it’s harder for one or the other, but some of the different challenges — how, for the adults, for example, who were in that provider mentality for so long, when the truth comes out that they’re not all-knowing, and that their children see them as human beings that are flawed just like everybody else —

Ruth:

I think, let’s face it. We are flawed human beings, and in some ways, that’s a tremendous relief. Just yesterday, my two-year-old grandson fell down, and I kissed him and made him better, and it’s a wonderful, powerful feeling, right? But I know, as they get older, I can’t do that for everything, right? So, what I can say is, we have to be honest with ourselves, and we know we are not all-knowing. And to be fair, children figure this out in the teenage years, right? That we are not all-knowing. So we are not really — we’re just acknowledging what’s already true.

Michael:

Let me ask this part. From a communication perspective, young children, when they do find this out, and their brain might not even be fully formed yet in their late teens, but how do you make sure, from the parent’s role, that you don’t completely give away some level of that authority while they’re still young enough but they have an awareness of things not being perfect. Because the children are still young, and they start to know it all by seventeen years old.

Ruth:

I think you continue to participate, continue to have rules, but also be willing to negotiate and willing to listen to their side of the story. And you begin to show how a dialogue actually happens. So, for example, I used to say to my college students when they went home, the first Thanksgiving, I always gave the same lecture, in which I said, “when your parents ask you what time you’ll be home, don’t assume they’re trying to control your life. They may be asking, ‘what time should I shut the light off on the porch?'” I think that this evolves over time and, gradually, as you seen your children, hopefully, making wise decisions, you give them more freedom. If they’re not making wise decisions, I think it’s okay to let them know that, but make sure that you are also helping them find other ways and other resources besides just you. But I want to say that, since we’re discussing the age of longevity, I think one of the issues we need to talk about now is how we need to be honest with each other about the future. One of the things many families do is intertwine funds. In some families, it is assumed that the children will take care of the parent in their old age, but the children may not feel that same way. So that’s a very important discussion to have, a discussion about how much have your planned for your own retirement, and, if you haven’t, what do you hope your children will do for you? And they may say, “that’s just not going to be possible, because I have my own children to raise. I have no funds to give you. I could, however, have you live in my house.” Or, “I could, however, help you by doing a BOC.” So I think we really want to be honest with our children about our own futures, and also, often, children fantasize that parents will help them more than they either want to or are able to, so the children may say, “oh, my parents love to babysit.” But the parents may feel, “been there, done that. I’m happy to help out in an emergency, but I really don’t want to babysit all the time.” So, being clear with what your expectations are is incredibly important.

Michael:

So, relative to your topic, you and your adult children experiencing longevity together, who initiates some of these conversations? Many, many years or decades ago, it was the parents doing all the leading. Now, is it the adult children’s time to bring that conversation up to the adults? How does that work?

Ruth:

I think it could be either one. And sometimes we can use third parties, and by that, I mean a movie or a book. I just read this fascinating book, and it talked about a mother who was alone after the death of her husband, and her children abandoned her, or she felt abandoned because they never called. And I wondered, “would I feel that way? What do you feel about our relationship now? Do you feel we talk to often? Do you feel we don’t talk enough?” So you could often use that, or a movie, or just call up and say, “I’ve been really troubled by something.”

Michael:

There’s a great song I heard years by Mike + The Mechanics, and it’s called “Living Years,” and what it talked about was mainly people who ended up dying, and they really weren’t able to have the conversation that they desperately wanted to have during their living years. And obviously once the person has passed away, it was too late to have that conversation face to face. They could visit them in other capacities.

Ruth:

I was going to say, that’s a wonderful thing to just say to your kids. “Is there anything you ever wondered about me that you’ve always wanted to ask?” Just bring up the conversation that way. By the way, there are all sorts of wonderful activities, certainly around the end of life, there’s a pack of playing cards by Don Gross, who runs a wonderful program, a podcast called “Dying to Talk,” and there’s also a wonderful end of life conversation which can be led by the program, by Ellen Goodman, the columnist, and that has all sorts of ways of getting into this conversation. It’s actually called “The Conversation Project.” Those would be resources. There’s a whole area before the end of life, and that’s the period when you’re both relatively healthy adults. And I talk about relatively, because we’re living with chronic diseases, and many of our children are, also. So it’s important to be talking about what you want for life and then really knowing what your values are. And they do change over time, so it’s not just one conversation. It’s not like, “oh, my God, I’m going to teach you the facts of life,” and then that’s the end of the conversation. This goes on and on, because we change, and they change, and the environment changes.

Michael:

What you mentioned earlier about expectations is powerful. It seems like there’s a series of unmet expectations that occur, and the reason that they’re unmet is because they really weren’t properly communicated in general, as to what the expectations were, so the other person assumes that the person knows what’s going on in their head, and they have no idea, so they have an unmet expectation by the other person. And it just seems the expectation —

Ruth:

Yeah. And often, we don’t know our own expectations. An example, just a very trivial example, is if someone comes to your house and they’re not dressed properly, what you considered properly, right? But you never told them what you expected. So that would be an example where your expectations weren’t met, but you didn’t even know you expected everyone to wear a shirt and a tie, or shorts, or whatever you expected.

Michael:

Interesting. Before we get to the end here, a question for you: is there a time in your multiple careers, but one time in particular you can think of, where you thought, “wow, I am making a difference, and this really means something to me”? Tell me one of those stories.

Ruth:

Oh, my goodness, I’ve had so many of those. I’ve been very fortunate in helping professions and setting up goodwill industries. Job placement program really was a very high point, setting up progress of persons of disabilities, and I have wonderful stories of people with mental challenges who worked and sent their siblings to college, or bought the family a car with their wages. That was very, very rewarding. It’s wonderful when a student comes up to you and says, “you’ve changed my life.” And certainly in writing my books, when readers write in to me and tell me that they had been able to now have conversations with their children. And I would say, speaking of resources, I have set up both of the books with questions at the end of each chapter that people can discuss either with their spouse, or in a group, with a group of friends, or even a group of strangers, and many churches and synagogues have used these books to have discussion groups. But also, where people tend to reflect by themselves, for those people who don’t like groups. These are just ways that can help one really focus and begin conversations.

Michael:

I want to give our listeners an opportunity, they wanted to get a copy of this book. I will make it available to them through the LTLA as a special gift, and they can call (800)868-1193 and request a free copy of Dr. Ruth’s book. I would say the one that we’d be making available is Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children. I’m sure that you have a deeper dive on the little amazing nuggets you’ve shared with us in this brief time during this call, but the book, I’m sure, goes through practical tips, as you said, or questions to ask, and things of that nature.

Ruth:

Right. It does, and I think, at least the readers that write to me, it’s been useful to many people.

Michael:

Fantastic. I did ask you for a fun fact, that you shared a little bit early in the call, but the fun fact that most people don’t know about you is what?

Ruth:

It was that I got my first book contract at age sixty-six and my second at age seventy.

Michael:

Which is just fascinating, because so many people think that, “oh, well, I’ve been there, done that, read the books, went through the courses,” and now they’re fifty-five, sixty, sixty-five, seventy, and they just kind of surrender to the rest of the process, whereas other folks like you, like I said, are more of the example than a warning, vibrantly living out there and getting your books published at sixty-six and seventy. You mentioned one of your favorite quotes. I’ll read it off here, and I’ll ask you to wrap up the call with your description of why this is one of your favorite quotes, but you said, “to live on in the acts of goodness and you perform and those who cherish your memory.” So to explain that —

Ruth:

This is a quote that I think about a lot, and have for many, many years. I think about, what is the legacy that I want to leave? And I want to leave behind people who think I’ve done something kind to them. And I also want to leave behind cherished memories. Fun times together. And I think that’s terribly important with your children, is to not make every conversation a big conversation, a big important one, to have lots of shared moments. It can be a walk in the park. It can be going to Disney. It can be anything. But just sharing some good times, and so I think that we all need to always live life fully, but also think, “what is the legacy I will leave?” And to me, the most important legacy you leave is the acts of kindness you perform for other people.

Michael:

Wow. I think that that’s a powerful, not only quote, but description of that. Is there any way that people can get in touch with you? I know you’re at Brandeis University, but do you have a website?

Ruth:

I do. My website is ruthnemzoff.com. And on that website is my email, which is rnemzoff@brandeis.edu.

Michael:

Wonderful. I’d love to highlight people who are embracing and loving longevity. It’s my passion and part of my calling, that we can help at least change and shift the paradigm to some small degree, hopefully a large degree at some point, that people can start being more proactive in all different aspects of their life: conversationally, communication, relationships, planning, financial, etc. And I think you, Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, is a wonderful example. We are so honored that you were on our call here today. I know our listeners are going to get a tremendous amount of value from what you’ve shared here. And thank you, not only for the call today, but for all that you do in the world and in the community that you run in and you live in, and I’m sure your family feels the same way. Thank you very much, and we look forward to seeing you on your website and hearing more things down the road.

Ruth:

Okay. Thank you very much. I appreciate your time, and good luck to everyone. Goodbye.

Michael:

Be well.

Announcer:

Thank you for joining us on this episode of “Love, Longevity.” With eighty million baby boomers coming into retirement, we need to change the paradigm as to how seniors and their families view and plan for aging and longevity issues. Here at the LTLA, we are your partner for aging options. To learn more about the Long Term Living Association and how we can help you, please visit us at longtermliving.org