August 12, 2022

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Celebrate older family members and the vital role they play

David Bethuram

The fact that we have an aging population and that people are living longer than ever before should be celebrated. However, much of the talk in the media centers around the burden of our aging population, and the negative changes we face as we age.

At Catholic Charities, we celebrate families and value the distinct roles each member of the family plays. Of course, it is not surprising that we focus on the contributions of older members of the family and how important it is to continue to make them an integral part of family life.

More and more older persons are choosing home care services in order to age at home and continue playing their vital role in the family well into their 80’s and beyond—teacher, mentor, hero, friend and guide, not just to their grandchildren but to their own adult children, their extended family and their community.

Businesses are recognizing and embracing the importance of intergenerational diversity, setting up programs to bring older employees or even retired and past employees back into the fold to offer a unique perspective. We often think of diversity only in cultural terms, yet intergenerational diversity offers similar rewards and results for those involved. Our parents, grandparents and older relative’s knowledge can help us understand the evolution of an idea across time and bring a greater depth to seeing why we are where we are today.

Encouraging your children, especially as they grow into young adults, to spend time with older relatives exposes them to individuals with diverse backgrounds, people who have likely grown up with different values and lets them experience a broader cross-section of society, preparing them for when they leave home. For all of us, spending time with a grandparent or elderly friend or relative allows us to reflect on our own values and judge our behavior by different standards rather than those of our immediate peers.

Older members of our family have often lived through wars or seen harder times and can be a source of inspiration for younger family members. Their stories of adversity, or simply of navigating life over a long time, help children to realize that challenges can be tackled through determination and hard work. Just as important, an older family member can often be a mentor, encouraging and inspiring a younger child to chase their dreams. At times when a parent-child relationship is challenging, a grandparent can become an extension of the unconditional love provided by family.

On the other side, one of the best things you can offer an elderly parent or loved one is the opportunity to remain socially active and to remain connected to family and friends. Talking and interacting with people keeps the brain active, which in turn has been shown to slow down the onset of cognitive decline.

Older members of a family bring wisdom, calm, dependability and unconditional love that frame the views of the broader family and shape the future of younger generations. And while more and more people in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond are choosing to remain in the workforce in one capacity or another, the contribution of older persons to society cannot be denied.

Whether volunteering in hospitals, libraries or schools, providing care for grandchildren so their own children can return to the workforce, or simply teaching and mentoring younger family members and filling them with a sense of fun and adventure, it is important to recognize the valuable contribution and vital role older members play in our immediate family and the broader community.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at †

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