‘I feel useless!’ It’s the refrain of many a senior citizen. While some adjust happily to their golden years, others find they’ve clambered off the hectic treadmill of their younger years into a vacuum that’s equally challenging. But it need not be so. When the experience and wisdom of the senior generation is tapped into, both sides benefit, as Thislife Online found out via two cross-generational relationships in Cape Town…
In caffeine veritas: Brian Burnett (left) and Charles Parry always kickstart their mentoring sessions with good coffee | Photo: Tonya Hester
CHARLES PARRY, 57, is Director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the SA Medical Research Council. He lives in Pinelands, Cape Town, is married to Rebecca, a clinical psychologist and private tutor, and they have two adult children
‘I was involved in a legal issue at work several years ago and felt I needed support and prayer to deal appropriately with it. I was specifically looking for support from someone experienced in the corporate sector at senior level. My church, Christ Church, Kenilworth [Cape Town] is keen to support people in their lives outside church and offers a mentorship programme. This puts younger people in contact with older people they believe they will relate to. I already knew Brian Burnett as a positive and sensitive individual who enjoys life and has a wonderful sense of humour, and was very happy we could be paired up.
We met every four to five weeks in Brian’s home in Rondebosch. We’d spend 20 minutes in his kitchen having some good coffee and a snack, then go through to his living room. He would typically get the ball rolling, and over time our discussions spread well beyond the initial work problem to other areas, such as my role as a husband and father. He’d keep a few notes during and after the session so that he would follow up on one or two issues at our next meeting. He’d also pray for me, and sometimes read out a bible verse if he felt led to do so. If something pressing was coming up, particularly concerning the legal issue, I would email him and ask for prayer for that specific day.
Brian didn’t always agree with me and would challenge me when necessary, but discussing issues with him would normalise things. Much of the time, rather than giving advice, he would just listen, sum up the situation and reflect it back to me. I felt hugely affirmed and listened to at a time when I was carrying a lot of stuff.
Even though 90% of the issues were mine, sometimes Brian would open up about his life and we would pray about these issues as well, though this is perhaps not typical of most mentoring relationships. This was great as I didn’t like feeling it was only a one-way street! I got to understand him, which was important. He was just starting retirement and sits on some boards, helps his sons in various ways, looks after his grandchildren, plays golf regularly and is a really good role model to me of how to manage your retirement well.
We put our meetings on hold when my particular crisis was averted and I got very busy and needed the time back. But we picked them up again six months later when our organisation went through massive restructuring and I ended up doing two jobs at once! Who better to walk some of that road with me than Brian with his wisdom, sense of humour and experience? Mentorship is a great system. Retirees in particular have a lot to offer and they can also benefit by knowing that they’re making a useful contribution. It doesn’t cost anything and is a particularly helpful system for men, as they can find it hard to slow down or to feel comfortable talking about things they are dealing with.’
BRIAN BURNETT, 71, is the retired financial director of a South African national media company. He lives in Rondebosch, Cape Town, with his wife, Pam. They have two sons and three grandchildren
’Mentoring is quite simply a chance for someone to share issues with another person who’s been around the block before them. I first experienced it at work around 15 years ago when my company introduced it. I learnt a lot there, including the key principle that if a mentoring relationship is to flourish, both parties must be keen to establish and maintain the relationship. If meetings are continuously postponed, you have to question whether the relationship is really working!
When I retired, a guy from my church asked if I’d like to become involved in its mentoring programme. I said yes because I enjoy working with people. I’m happy to sit with a person and listen and give guidance where appropriate because it gives me pleasure to help if I can.
A major point to remember as a mentor is that you’re the listener. You’re tempted to say, ‘This is what you should do’ and to advise frequently, but you have to resist that! If you leap in with advice too quickly, the mentee won’t have the chance to really open up and lay out all the issues. It’s imperative to be well-matched as individuals. The matching process, which in my case was done by trained mentoring coordinators, is key to success. In my business mentoring, I saw some relationships break down simply because of poor mentor/mentee matching.
Establishing a strong sense of trust is also crucial. Making it clear to the mentee that nothing will go beyond the four walls of the room is critical, and to emphasise this I also open up with things I want to talk about. You both need to be patient, too. You can’t always tell straight away if the relationship is working as the issues can take a while to work through.’
OTHER DO’S AND DON’TS?
‘It’s a good idea to meet somewhere private and not too frequently unless there’s an urgent issue, as there’s no quick fix! I make notes after my meetings with my mentees so that I can follow up on specific issues the next time we meet. I prepare before each subsequent session by reading my notes and praying.
During the meeting we have a cup of coffee, talk about everything relevant, and pray together. I don’t believe in having too much structure. I haven’t got all the answers by any means, but at the end of the day if the mentee can take something from the relationship, that’s great. I believe Charles and I had a meaningful time and I really enjoy meeting with him.’
Whether it’s a nailing a sewing technique or grappling with a stressful situation, Glenda Baker (right) has delighted in passing on her experience and wisdom to Gil Marsden | Photo: Tonya Hester
GIL MARSDEN, 44, is a mother of two children aged 15 and 12, has a background in journalism and website design, and lives in Bergvliet. She was widowed out of the blue nearly three years ago
‘I met Glenda through a bible study group we were jointly facilitating at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Kirstenhof [Cape Town]. I soon realised she was the sort of person you could trust, who was discreet, and who taught and facilitated the group really well. Some time later, I went on a leadership course and was advised to find a mentor for a year. Glenda had left our study group by then but I asked her if she would consider it because I liked her theology and her sensible advice about kids, marriage and life. I was really pleased that she was available. Initially we met every other week at each other’s house and would spend about 90 minutes together, then we started meeting less regularly, but the time together was always meaningful.
We often discussed parenting as that’s where so many of my concerns were at the time. But I also went to Glenda with very personal, emotional issues, and she allowed me to pour out my heart. I might want to react in a certain way and she was very good at asking questions that helped me see things differently: ‘What has happened that makes you think this is different? What does Gary [my husband] say? What does God say?’ She always asked a question before she leapt in with an answer – sometimes I could almost see her biting her tongue! It’s a great technique that has helped me to help others.
When I walked out of a session with Glenda, it was a huge help to have shared a burden and heard a different perspective on things. She had a healing ministry and a lot of godly wisdom and learning, and I often made notes of what she said. It was so great when she confirmed what I thought God was telling me – and what Gary was saying too! I also appreciated it when she challenged my lazy or ’default’ thinking, not to mention the encouragement of her praying with and for me.
I am fortunate to be able to speak pretty freely to my parents – who live in Zambia – and they are very responsive and wise. However, I did find it helpful to have a completely objective person to talk to, who was removed from the emotion of any issues and who could independently help me to assess a situation.
While Glenda mentored me, I in turn mentored a student. I’m not sure I was that great at it, but I was available to listen. And to pray too – because while life experience can be so invaluable, human wisdom is still limited! The student I mentored was also mentoring a girl in her teens because there were so many things she wished she’d known in her own teens that she wanted to pass on! I think everyone should be both mentored, and mentoring. It’s crucial to find someone you respect, then maybe set it up for a season and if it’s not working, reassess. In any case, I think most mentorships work best for a season – so no-one is locked in for life! My season with Glenda lasted for about two years and looking back, it was such a valuable period of intentional input and growth, as well as friendship.
Since my time with Glenda ended, I’ve been benefitting from being in a leadership/peer mentoring group at our church. This has been a tremendous growth and support environment for me, especially since Gary unexpectedly died of a heart attack nearly three years ago. In addition to this group, I’ve had some one-on-one sessions with a grief counsellor and, more recently, some faith and life mentoring from another older and wiser woman in my church, who also happens to be a widow. I hope my life continues to be full of such encounters and I’m thankful to God for his provision of friendship and wisdom in good times as well as in bad.’
GLENDA BAKER, 62, has two daughters and two grand-daughters, and used to work in a bank then helped run a coffee shop.. She lives in Bergvliet, Cape Town, and is married to Neil, a financial planner.
‘I believe quite strongly in helping from one generation to the next. It’s biblical: Titus 2 verses 1 to 5 speaks about the value of it. I’ve always been motivated to pass things on because I always wished I had someone to do it for me. Whether you’re speaking spiritually or practically, experience helps so much more than theory.
Years ago I heard someone like James Dobson on the radio talking about the fact that things have changed so much since psychology came on the scene. We’ve stopped passing things down and started teaching only what psychologists teach. However, what I’ve really learnt is that nothing changes from one generation to the next. The younger generation always thinks the older one doesn’t understand. I thought no-one understood me, just as my two daughters thought no-one understood them! I can see that nowadays some things are undeniably different, but the principles and human nature remain the same. We respond in similar ways throughout time.
Obviously I don’t want to break any confidences, but one of the things I tried to help Gil with was to encourage her when her children were very young and she was feeling worthless, that her brain was drying up and she was just clearing up mess all day.
DOS AND DON’TS?
You have to be careful not to put your own stuff onto someone else. You can be too emphatic about doing things a particular way, but I’ve learnt there are many ways. Mentoring is more a sharing of what has worked for you, and the person you are trying to help needs to take from it just what is good for them.
WHAT DO YOU GET OUT OF IT?
It’s like a friendship thing. It doesn’t only work one way. In the process I’ve learnt from Gil – for example, to be careful of materialism. I think she’s the most unmaterialistic person I know! I value these lessons. They’re wonderful, such a blessing. I think one of the keys to getting older happily is remaining teachable and hearing what someone else has to say!
More than anything, I think mentoring, whether official or unofficial, is about checking our values and how we look at things. In my lifetime I never heard of anyone in their old age who wished they had a better car or a bigger house, but I often meet people who wished they’d done their relationships better. I’m increasingly convinced that passing wisdom, experience and love down from one generation to another is extremely valuable. It was an extreme tragedy when Gil lost Gary as they had a truly remarkable marriage, which not everyone is fortunate enough to experience. I knew I wasn’t the right person to mentor her through her loss as my father died when I was young and I would find it hard to see things from her perspective. So I’m particularly glad that she has mentoring support from a widowed lady in her church.’