Extended Families: Our Greatest Resources
By Helen Hunter, ACSW, CMSW 

There are many family situations today where you can find three, four or even five generations living under one roof.  While the circumstances that result in multi-generational living vary from financial to health-related to simple family closeness, families who choose to live together face initial periods of adjustment. Many of these family members ultimately find their relationships strengthened by their mutual experiences and their patience in dealing with many issues at once. These issues may include serving as the main caregiver for an older relative, grandparents raising grandchildren and adult children having to rely on their parents for financial support due to job loss or disability. Others choose to live together by choice, as a way to keep the close-knit ties intact, and as a way to help each other when needed by being in the same household.

Those who maintain such a close relationship recognize the benefits of continued contact with the members of their extended families.  There are, however, many families that cannot see each other nearly this often.  Whether it is due to the large geographic distances between them, or due to their hectic daily schedules, losing contact with your family is a loss that can never be recovered.  With a little time and a little planning, however, it is possible to maintain these links.  Here are several ways to help maintain closer ties between extended family members.

Hold a Reunion

Many families hold regular or irregular reunions, be it once a year, once every other year, or a few times during each year.  These get-togethers, which can be held at a family members’ home, a central point that all can reach, or at a travel destination such as a cruise trip or at Disney World, are a unique opportunity to visit with closely related and more distantly related members of the extended family.  Many families have reunions with the various parts of their family every year.  Everyone has a great time “catching up” with each other.  Everyone usually has fun, and they come away with a greater sense of how lucky they are to be part of such a special group.  Pictures or video-camera movies are taken at these events, which preserve the memories for years to come.

Vacation Together

This may seem like something that you might NOT wish to do, but it can be a lot of fun, if you all work together and understand from the beginning that there may be a few rough moments along with the great ones.  By vacationing together, you have a great opportunity to be even closer to everyone in the extended family. Although you can plan many group activities, make sure to spend some quality time alone, or with your own nuclear family.

Interview or Videotape a Conversation With an Older Relative

You will be fascinated with the stories that you uncover and can pass on to subsequent generations if you take the time to listen.  Not only do you learn more about the person and what they endured in their lifetime, but you also get a firsthand account of an earlier time from someone who was there.  You can “interview” your relative and learn a great deal about people who might be only a name on the family tree, but had a real connection to your relative in their daily life.  You can also videotape your relative and ask a number of questions about their childhood, thereby also learning more about your parents and grandparents.  These tapes and interviews are true treasures and future members of the family will feel the same way.

Write to Each Other

This is a practice that can be accomplished by the traditional handwritten note or through e-mail. Through regular writings (and the latest photos), the extended family is able to keep abreast of each other’s daily lives.  Videotapes are also very useful to keep in regular correspondence with members of the family that you don’t see very often, particularly if you don’t like to write!  Remember, too, that communication is a two-way street.  You won’t find out about others unless you make an effort to tell them about you!

Make a Book of Memories

This is a wonderful present for older people to give to children.  These books contain stories of their lives and are another way of passing their life stories on to subsequent generations.  Children enjoy reading these books and can feel “connected” to their relatives who live far away or who have died.  You can also make a cookbook of favorite recipes and give a copy to everyone in our family. A story of the origin of each recipe would make the book truly special to the extended family.  You can expand the family memory idea by putting together a yearly photo calendar, with appropriate photos for each month of the year. List family birthdays and anniversaries for each month, as a reminder to everyone.  The family can get involved by sending their favorite photos from the past year, and this could serve as a “sure” holiday gift every year.

Extended families should be considered a treasure in that, even though we are related, we have diverse interests and talents that we can share with each other.  In doing so, we can strengthen the bonds that we share and pass on to our children the enthusiasm that we have in sharing with each other.  This way, they too will realize just how lucky they are to have such a varied and special group of people to be related to. 

 

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