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Celebrating All Families, All Ages

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Last week, I was privileged to be part of a distinguished panel at the United Nations celebration of the 2013 International Day of Families. It's a day when people across the world celebrate families and the important roles they play in supporting civil society and the compact between generations.

The theme that day was "Advancing Social Inclusion and Intergenerational Solidarity." They couldn't have chosen a better theme. Because at a time when the traditional definition of family is expanding rapidly around the globe, we need to be sure the web of mutual obligation that supports them is strong.

No matter what their structure, every family needs support from within and from without. And that's where intergenerational solidarity plays a starring role.

More and more young families now rely on grandparents to provide childcare on a full or part-time basis to enable both mothers and fathers to work. A 2012 study by the MetLife Mature Market Institute found 32 percent of grandparents care for grandchildren five or more days a week and 62 percent provided financial assistance within the last five years.

Outside of the U.S., Singapore & Malaysia have what they call "weekend parents" -- grandparents who care for children during the week while their parents work and turn the responsibility back over to parents on weekends. In rural China, where migration for employment is high, 20 percent of elders provide full-time care for an estimated 58 million children left behind by parents.

Intergenerational solidarity is essential to healthy families and civil societies.

So, how can we best support solidarity between the generations? Research by Dr. Leng Leng Thang of the University of Singapore found intergenerational programs provide a platform for developing positive relationships across generations and strengthen the quality of ties between family members. A study in Europe discovered that younger people who engage in intergenerational programs show more interest in the older members of their own families.

Intergenerational programs vary around the U.S. and the globe and but generally fall into four categories:

• Young serving old. In these programs, young people may teach older people how to use technology, perform home safety inspections and household chores or help elder immigrants study for their citizenship exams;

• Old serving young. Examples of these types of programs abound, and include older adults tutoring in schools, mentoring teen mothers, or providing safe passage for children walking to school.

• Young and old serving together. In these efforts, younger and older adults volunteer together to serve others. A great example is Meal Runners in St Louis where young students help older adults deliver Meals on Wheels to home-bound seniors.

• Shared sites. Such intergenerational sites include an adult day care sharing a facility with a child care center or an after-school program that takes place at a senior center or a senior center embedded in a high school.

These programs have been proven to save dollars while making sense. All are developed to capitalize on each generation's strengths and promote bonding between the generations. All require us to look at issues using an intergenerational lens, and not think of generations in isolation.

We need to ensure that our family policies include older family members and grandfamilies in order to encourage the active engagement of all generations in the family.

Our elders have a responsibility to be the champions of the next generations. Research has proved that the so-called "grandparent advantage" -- the ability to recycle human knowledge, understanding, culture and experience -- benefits future generations.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the International Day of the Families. Let's begin the celebration early by finding ways to boost intergenerational solidarity. Here are a few ideas:

• Communities, cities and countries can create an office for children, youth, older adults, and families that is dedicated to protecting all generations and that can forge new alliances between organizations that work on their behalf.

• Review local and federal family policies with an intergenerational lens, ensuring inclusion and support for grandfamilies and other non-traditional families.

• Use the 20th anniversary to call on member countries and local communities to promote intergenerational dialogues that lead to mutual understanding.

• Promote intergenerational centers and use of space to encourage interaction across generations.

In 1948 the United Nations declared "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." Sixty-five years later, this is still true.