THE BLOG
05/14/2013 03:14 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

How Moving to the West Bank Brought Me Closer to My Parents

Donna Stefano

I now count myself among the ranks of the "sandwich generation," providing care for my own young child while at the same time ensuring good care for my aging parents. When my father was recently diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, my first thought was, I'm not ready for this. But, after some reflection, I've learned a lot from the intergenerational bonds that support me here in Palestine -- and I've developed a new sense of hope. It's one that we all should be mindful of, especially as we celebrate the UN-sponsored International Day of Families (May 15) and its theme of Advancing Social Integration and Intergenerational Solidarity.

I moved to the Middle East with my son in 2008 to take a job with Global Communities (formerly CHF International). Here, the concept of intergenerational connection is part of the culture, which has its own Arabic phrase to capture the importance of the "hamula," or tribe. I learned quickly that "hamula" emerges in every aspect of day to day life, even at work. While I was conducting an initial assessment across the West Bank for the Global Communities Palestine Homebuyer Education Program a few years ago, one of the questions I asked women and men of all ages included the determining factor for selecting a home to buy. As elsewhere in the world, "location" was one of their top three considerations. But I needed to know what factors within location were important to Palestinians, who live with a diverse range of physical and financial challenges in their daily life. When I dug deeper, I discovered that for these new, young families, location meant proximity to other family members -- usually parents.

All young families in Palestine, regardless of their economic background or employment status, rely on connections to their parents for caretaking. Grandparents and in-laws are often close by to provide a reliable, known place for parents to leave their children when in a bind. In many cases, grandparents live in the same home, which serves as an intergenerational dwelling for the entire extended family. Young adults also live in the family home until they are married, a practice that stems both from the cultural value placed on interdependence and from an economic necessity in a region with a large population of unemployed youth. It mirrors the trend that we are seeing in the United States, in which college graduates move back into the house with their parents to save money while searching for a job.

This connection, however, is not a one-way street. The elderly family members, known as the "haj" or the "hajji" -- male or female members, respectively, are revered by extended family. They play a significant role in sustaining the "hamula," and in return, these senior family members are looked after not only by their grown children, but by broods of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who often chaperone them at family weddings, schedule doctor visits, or share cups of tea in the evenings and listen to their stories. While the years of family obligations and responsibilities are behind these elders, they play a central role in maintaining the lineage bonds that connect even the most distant of cousins.

This model does make me nostalgic for the lifestyle in which I grew up. As both my parents worked, I was often dropped off at my grandparents' house when a fever kept me home from school. It was the win-win solution for all. My parents knew I was in good hands, I got the care that I needed, and my grandparents and I bonded over bowls of orange sherbet, the cure-all for strep throat.

As a parent myself, living overseas so far away from my family, it has been important to me to find creative ways to maintain this intergenerational tie between my own son and his grandparents. It's not just about reciprocal care, which would certainly require me to be in closer physical proximity than where I am today, but about non-material support that is fundamental to building a bond.

Weekly video calls every Sunday before bedtime allow my son to keep my parents (both former teachers) updated on his progress at school. They share with him creative ways to solve math problems or resources to use for completing his Revolutionary War project for his fifth grade class at the American school in Jerusalem. And an added bonus: These weekly calls keep me updated on their lives, health status and news from our extended family.

My son spends most of our vacation time in the summer with his grandparents at their house on a lake in northern Canada. While he indulges in my mother's spaghetti and meatballs, he learns about how the recipe, passed down through generations, came to be. While helping my father in the garden, he learns about planting seasons, green thumbs, and stories from my parents' youth.

I will always worry that my father will have access to the care he needs as his Alzheimer's progresses, especially when I live so far away. But, like my Palestinian friends, I have begun to appreciate the inherent value of "the ties that bind," starting with simple story telling to keep a family close -- even if we're many thousands of miles apart.