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Patricia C Behnke

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Bridging the Generation Gap
By Patricia C Behnke
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Chasing the Howler Monkey in Panama Aids the Cause for Changing Views of Aging

My leg sunk into the mud up to my knee. I pulled and nothing happened except the loosening of my foot within the confines of the tall rubber boots I wore to protect my body from the muck. I moved my foot side to side and felt a break in the tension created by the suction of the mud.

I pulled hard to free myself and fell onto my back and into the pool of mud disguised as the floor of the swamp forest.

A nightmare? No, I was proving to myself — and 10 college students — that I am neither faint of heart nor afraid of getting dirty in the pursuit of howler monkeys in the rain forests.

I also proved something else — it showed that despite being 30 years older than my companions, I still managed to keep up and even more importantly, I kept up with a smile on my face.

We have all heard the stats. Baby boomers are hitting the ranks of Seniors in the millions. It is estimated that a baby boomer will hit 50 years of age every seven seconds until 2014.

My birth came in the middle of those baby boomer years — 1954 — and I watch as my peers and I move into a new phase of our lives. We represent over 50 percent of the discretionary spending power in the United States, and we own over 70 percent of U.S. financial assets.

But we possess something more than mere dollars. We have knowledge, experience and the unique ability to influence through example how the next generations view aging and their elders. We are in a transition period, and we are in the most powerful position of all — we can once again set trends and effect change.

My rain forest experience occurred at the Institute for Tropical Ecology Conservation on Bocas del Toro, an island off the northern coast of Panama. ITEC was begun by Gainesville resident, Peter Lahanas, a decade ago, and each year over a hundred students from across the country go there to study coral reef, rain forest and primate ecologies, along with a host of other courses. I had been urged to go there by the Glanzer family of Newberry whose daughter Sara attended ITEC for two summers before her death in 2002. Now Sara’s brother Logan is there studying environmental photography for the summer.

I went in pursuit of a story because ITEC is facing difficulty as developments encroach upon its area of field study.

“You know most students won’t even come into this forest,” one of the students told me. “You had a really good attitude about it.”

Later I sat at a table in the shade on the sandy beach of the Carribbean Sea writing notes about the experience. Another student came and joined me, interested in my work as a writer and eager to hear my stories. This scenario repeated itself over and over again during my activity-filled days on the island.

Joe Maher, 65, spends every summer at ITEC teaching canopy access. During the first summer session I attended, he was a part of the rain forest ecology course, but later in the summer he will teach his own separate course in tree climbing. While I was there, two students approached him and said they wanted to work with him on their individual projects due during the last half of their session.

He happily accepted the request and helped them perform a climb for me and my camera. Joe believes that the medicinal herbs and plants in the canopy may have an impact on the cures for some diseases.

“I’ll take anyone climbing anytime they want to go,” he said.

We chatted after the climb, sitting on the porch of Joe’s dormitory. The students told me they hoped to put their project on canopy access to use in careers as anthropologists and ecologists. Water lapped on the beach only feet away. The palms swayed in the wind and the only danger came from the canons called coconuts that occasionally dropped from the trees. Joe shared stories of his tree climbing life, which included four climbs the previous day with other students.

This shared experience is the best way to bridge any generation gap that might exist. I came away with hope for the future and they came away knowing that people over 50 are vital resources who can climb trees and fall in the mud in pursuit of a story. §

       Web Site: Patricia Behnke

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