09/16/2006 12:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Parenting Comes Full-Circle

Our family has four living generations. My husband and I, in our sixties and fifties respectively, have two teen-aged children preparing to fly the coop and two married thirty-something daughters with children under five years. We're blessed with my ninety-six year-old mother-in-law who lives in Israel, and my octogenarian parents who live with us in our home. Our multigenerational family is like a tribe; we consider ourselves lucky to be close physically and emotionally, and we know this kind of arrangement isn't the norm - at least not in our country. But perhaps it should be.

According to experts who recently appeared before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, senior citizens have the country's highest suicide rate and higher levels of mental illness than any other age group. Loneliness, illness and financial hardship may be yokes that are too heavy for this group to bear - alone, that is. Soon, the issue will be too big to ignore; currently, the United Nations estimates that one in ten people worldwide are 60 years or older, and the ratio is expected to escalate to one in five by 2050. This swing in demographics means that more of today's teen-agers will find themselves taking on the responsibility of caring for their aging parents and grandparents than in generations past. (I hope my kids are reading this).

Encouraging a multigenerational dialog is a good thing, and apparently something we should be taking advantage of. A 2001 Gallup Youth Survey revealed that spending time with older people was listed as being an important part of teenager's lives.

Not everyone can afford to have their aging parents live with them, and aside from the financial aspect, it may not be the best solution for everyone. But, for our tribe, it is working well. Having my parents live with us for the past nine years has added an interesting dynamic to family life. There were times, in the very beginning, when my folks felt dislocated and strangely dependant. It took awhile to reassure them that their lives would still be their own...that they weren't a "burden" to us as they feared, and we weren't obfuscating boundaries. As it is, we see my aging parents every day, and eat dinner with them most nights. Though our son is now off to college, our married girls come over frequently, and our teenaged daughter is home for least on school nights. As a group, we take family vacations together, celebrate holidays together, gather on weekends for family meals, and communicate often via email and phone. We all benefit from my parents' presence and collective years of hard-earned wisdom. We also see how vulnerable they are; financial and health concerns, mobility and autonomy's been a rare glimpse into the crystal ball of my own future.

Not that it's always easy to have multiple opinions, multiple food requirements, and multiple bed-times, but in a primarily individualist society like ours, where families are more often than not scattered around the country, there's something deeply moving about navigating the world with a community-oriented compass...starting with the community of family. Due to our clannish way of doing things, our kids have had to learn what works for the common good of the family collective - they've noticed, sometimes to their chagrin, that their individual needs are not always the only needs, nor the first needs to be considered. It's not only about me, me, me in our household, but more often about us, us, us.

Now that the gauntlet has been passed, my parent's generation is essentially in the bleachers - observing the show. My folks have moved into the cared-for category, rather than the care-givers. We are, in essence, parenting them. And though the broad range of needs and developmental issues of a multigenerational group can cause havoc at times, the support we give each other far outweighs the drama and occasional friction such gatherings may evoke. Our rituals, birthday celebrations, simple family meals, arguments, and the making up afterwards - comprise our unique family culture. We adhere to the notion that family rituals are the glue that holds everyone together. And though we occasionally experience sticky situations, we like this kind of glue.

Sadly, for many senior citizens - life in the end zone is not so pleasant. Even with kids who love and adore them, loneliness is rampant. Just as we all needed help stepping into adulthood, our parents need to be supported in their launch into old age. We can learn so much from being with the previous generation - humility, compassion, and teamwork. We will be the previous generation in a heartbeat - and we, like our predecessors, will want to be part of the dialog - counted and listened to.

I highly recommend the tribal life. From the young to the old, conversations and experiences are valued, if divergent, and in the microcosm of our own family, we try to attain and maintain peace. Even when my dad just wants to rant about the lack of left-turn signals, and when the only things my mom feels comfortable talking about with authority are her ailments. And when my 96-year-old mother-in-law - who is in the forgetful phase, asks the same question every five minutes, someone in our family will patiently answer her every time.

Parenting has come full-circle, and it's enriching for all of us. Perhaps making peace here, in the community of our own families, will help our kids learn how to make peace out the larger community of humankind. It's a nice thought. We need to start somewhere, don't we?