(Next Avenue invited our 2017 Influencers in Aging to blog about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. One of the posts is below; we will be publishing others regularly.)
My mom was 22 when she left Taiwan. It was her first time on an airplane, her first time leaving the country and her first time away from family. Like so many immigrants before her, she came to the United States alone, with little more than a few dollars in her purse. She landed, of all places, in Minneapolis, with hopes of pursuing the American Dream.
That first year was tough. Homesick, my mom struggled with English, loneliness and snow. But she fondly remembers with gratitude the American family who invited her for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, giving her a sense of home.
Inviting Outsiders to Join the Family Table
While she never acquired a taste for turkey or ham, my mom adopted a wonderful tradition of inviting outsiders to join our family table. Every holiday throughout my childhood, our house was filled with Chinese students who — far from home — crowded around our table, sharing stories and Peking duck.
As an adult, I’m obsessed (personally and professionally) with finding ways to recreate that sense of extended family that comes so naturally in certain cultures, but can feel so distant and inaccessible in ours.
I’ve seen glimmers over the years:
- The African-American elders in the Experience Corps tutoring program I ran in San Francisco who threw me my first baby shower
- The elderly Filipino woman on my street who became a surrogate grandma to my kids
- The retired white couple from our church who spearheads an annual camping trip for stressed-out young families eager to spend time with those who have walked that path before
Inspiring Extended Family Stories
In my current job as director of Encore.org’s Gen2Gen campaign (where people over 50 stand up for youth who need champions), I’m lucky to come across stories of extended family all the time:
- The couple in the Washington, D.C. area who, prompted by a son’s friend who wasn’t getting regular meals, now opens their home and their dinner table every Thursday night to young people who need more caring adults in their lives (Next Avenue wrote about them here)
- The social entrepreneur in St. Louis who started Table Wisdom to connect older adults who have so much left to give with young immigrants like himself (and like my own parents years ago), who need help practicing English and adjusting to American life
- The reverend who started The Welcome Church in Philadelphia serving a cross-section of the City of Brotherly Love’s homeless population, no questions asked, by throwing baby showers, marrying — and even burying — congregants; in her church, no one goes unnoticed
Guiding Children to Becoming Caring Older Adults
I have two boys of my own now, and with each passing year, the work I do at Gen2Gen feels more personal. I want my boys to grow up knowing there’s a whole world of caring older adults out there who will treat them like extended family.
I want them to grow into the kind of elders who will reflexively care for younger generations, knowing that as they age, their capacity to expand their family table, to welcome more people into their lives, will only increase.
I want them to become part of an army of people living Gen2Gen, invested in reaching across differences to be family to one another.
When I think back to the crowded Christmas dinners of my childhood, I remember so clearly how our house and hearts felt full as people of all ages and from multiple continents gathered over so much more than food. My own sense of family and belonging are anchored in the wisdom and stories shared by older generations, buoyed by the energy and potential of youth.
As the new year dawns, my wish — and my challenge for anyone who will join me — is to make room at the table until it overflows … and then see what happens.
After all, what wouldn’t we do for family?
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