THINK BACK TO YOUR CHILDHOOD. Did you have a grandparent who played an important role in your life? Perhaps your grandmother read you stories or
taught you how to knit, or maybe your grandfather took you fishing or showed
you how to use a compass. In days gone by, grandparents were simply part of daily life for most American families. They often lived next door or just across town. They came to dinner on a regular basis, maybe even on vacation during the summer. They were appreciated and recognized for the wisdom they brought to the lives of their children and grandchildren
It all sounds simple enough, and reasonable enough, until you remember that every one of us is saddled with something called the human condition, and our all-too-human emotions—doubt, suffering, anger, fear—can get into the way of the joy that can be ours
Today’s society paints a very different picture. With retirement age creeping ever upward and families spread out across the country, the intergenerational connection is weakening in many places, to the detriment of society as a whole and families in particular. Some children hardly know their grandparents, or see them only once a year. Others have no connection to older adults at all, robbing them of the opportunity to bond with those who have so much to share, from family history and sage advice, to increasingly hard-to-find memories of our country and our world.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are signs that an increasing number of families are living in multigenerational homes, where grandparents have come to live—often due to health or economic reasons—long before little ones have left the nest. And while these families get the added benefit of cross-generational bonding, they also experience added stress on what has come to be known as the “sandwich generation,” those adults who are caring for children and parents at the same time. A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that one in five adults, age 65 and older, now live in a multigenerational home. And the numbers keep growing.
“What the numbers don’t show is what a blessing it can be for younger generations to have a senior family member living with them,” says Bill Dodds, a writer who specializes in intergenerational issues.
In a series of interviews for OSV Newsweekly, Dodds shared the stories of three families who have experienced the joys of multigenerational living. One woman, Renee Haney from Louisiana, told Dodds that having her mother live with her family taught her three children lessons they never would have learned otherwise. “It was a wonderful experience for all of them. They learned compassion. They learned that, with family, you’re there for them… that in tough times you laugh and you hold onto your faith and God sees you through,” she said.
Although the idea of a multigenerational home sounds unusual to our modern and highly independent ears, it’s the norm for many others around the world. In Asian, African and Native American culture, elders hold a place of honor and respect and often move in with their children and grandchildren not out of hardship but out of love.
On Strength for Caring, a website for family caregivers, Justin Buchbinder writes about a Chinese- American family in Long Island, N.Y., where three generations happily live together. “Caregiving is a natural occurrence in Chinese culture. Parents move in with their children when their children get married. The parents help raise their children’s children, and when the parents themselves need care, their children are prepared to care for their parents until the end of life,” he writes. “Caregiving is not seen as a chore, or as a new role. It’s simply another step in the long, continuous life of a family.”
The daughter in that multigenerational home puts it simply: “Without our elders, would we even be here? No. We owe them our lives, and our respect for gifting us with those lives.”
“So with old age is wisdom, and with length of days understanding.” —Job 12:12
Multigenerational benefits go both ways, of course. For seniors living with children, quality of life often improves dramatically, as does the potential for better health and longer life. Older adults living by themselves face loneliness and isolation. They often have difficulty getting to doctor appointments or to the grocery store. Even making meals can become too much for them, resulting in weight loss and other eating-related problems.
Most people marvel when they hear that Helen, 99, still lives in her own apartment. Her independence at such an advanced age seems unthinkable to many, but there’s a secret to Helen’s success. She is surrounded by family members and friends who make her independent living possible. Her daughter does her grocery shopping and stocks her freezer and fridge with pre-made meals that require nothing but a few minutes in the microwave. Her son-in-law drops by once a day to bring her the mail and make sure she’s up and about. Her grandchildren and great-grandchild stop by and call, asking her about the “old days” and keeping her up to date on what’s going on in their lives. Younger residents in her senior complex encourage her to join them outside on the park bench when the weather is nice.
The truth is that we need each other. Chances are, if we don’t have a grandparent living nearby, we have some other older adult who could benefit from our care and concern.
“The gift of older people can be specifically that of being witness to tradition in the faith, both in the Church and in society, the teacher of the lessons of life, and the worker of charity.” —Blessed Pope John Paul II,
Go in Peace: A Gift of Enduring Love
Michele Bernasconi and her three daughters began visiting a local nursing home almost two years ago. Although they get to see their out-of-state grandparents with some frequency, they are too far away for day-to-day contact. So Michele decided to improvise. Each Tuesday morning she goes to the nursing home in her suburban town to pray the Rosary with residents and attend their weeklyCommunion service.
“I started doing this ministry in the summer when my children were home from school, and so without putting too much thought into it, I brought my children along. Witnessing the meeting between the residents and my children filled my heart in such a positive way. The residents’ eyes were brighter; their smiles were wider especially when my children went up to each and every resident to share the Sign of Peace. And my children were outwardly kind and compassionate with their new friends,” says Michele.
“Since we don’t have family near us, my children have no specific experience of loving, gaining wisdom from and caring for the older generation. But something as simple as spending 45 minutes each week with the residents has brought us hours of enjoyment,” she adds, explaining that each Tuesday, even when her children are unable to join her, they spend their dinner conversation talking about residents like Gloria, who regularly gives the girls sketches on paper napkins.
“My daughter states it well when she says, ‘Gloria’s mind doesn’t work so well, but her heart is in perfect shape!’” says Michele, whose own friendship with another nursing home resident, Hank, has shown her in a very concrete way how this intergenerational connection benefits everyone.
“Before meeting Hank, if we had passed him in the grocery store, we would have been inclined to say hello and continue on. Now that we have a relationship with Hank, one that is centered in prayer and love for Jesus, we are changed. And changed for the better,” she says. “The residents always thank me for coming each week and are so filled with gratitude for the service I provide, and yet I tell them repeatedly that they are the ones who must be thanked. It is truly my honor to be in their presence because being with them is being in the presence of something holy.”
There are so many ways to connect with seniors, whether it’s through an “adopt-a-grandparent” program sponsored by a local senior center, delivering Meals on Wheels, visiting homebound or hospital-bound seniors through a pastoral ministry program sponsored by your church or synagogue, or maybe simply ringing the doorbell of an elderly neighbor who could use someone to rake the leaves, run to the store, or just sit for 15 minutes and share a cup of tea.
Real Bonds in a Virtual World
We can even make intergenerational connections without leaving home. If grandparents live across the country, or even just across the state, we can set up an Internet link either through Facebook, instant messaging, Skype, or, at the very least, e-mail. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the bonds strengthen when kids and grandparents can chat “live” via Skype once a week, not only sharing stories but seeing each other face to face, albeit on a computer screen. And, if one side of the equation is not too technologically savvy—as is sometimes the case with computer-shy seniors—there’s always the old-fashioned way of communicating: letter writing.
For an older person living alone, the next best thing to an in-person visit is a handwritten note or card. Include photos and drawings, copies of report cards and other tidbits to bridge the distance. And what child doesn’t love to open the mailbox and find personal mail? It’s a rare but exciting treat, even for stoic teenagers who spend so much of their time in the virtual world.
“We have to find ways for old and young people to live together again. It will make all of us very happy.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step
Help me to be mindful of the value of all
of God’s children, from babies to seniors.
Help me to show love and respect to all,
including myself, and to encourage the
elderly, who most often need reminders
of God’s hope.
Whether I share a smile, prayer or chat
or help to lighten one’s burdens,
may I do so with patience and love,
remembering that You are within them
making Your presence known to us both…
looking at me through their eyes.
Thank You, Lord, for making me an
instrument of Your love.