a corsage of 3 friendly peachy roses

reunion of Dad's Friesen cousins in 2006

Letter to Younger Relatives in the Extended Family

We're just back from a Reunion of my Dad's Friesen Cousins (2006). At 90, he is the oldest one now of his generation. All those older than him in that extended clan have died, and even a number of those younger than Dad.

As I looked over that generation of first cousins I saw the signs of aging since the last reunion three years ago. I'm sort of between, in that I have socialized with most of them at different times, and yet I am one of the younger - the next generation of second cousins and third... and so on. I'm in the middle of that gap between the first generation and the third, giving me a unique perspective.

So, kids - allow me to give you some tips today on how best to relate to those older First Cousins (the 75-90 age range).

They find travel and being away from their familiar daily routines and foods and beds - in a word, difficult. When they come out to an over night event, do your best to make them comfortable.

An even better idea would be to go pay them a visit on their own turf. They tire out easily and need their naps, so those visits can be short, an hour or two at the most, but try to make them more frequently then before. Though there might be the odd exception, they will be delighted to see you!

Most of them are conscientiously downsizing their possessions, because either they are, or will be moving into smaller apartments or rooms soon. This means that they don't really need big display gifts. If you know they love flowers, a single rosebud in a pretty vase would be better than a large bouquet for which they have no space. Most still treasure photographs, but I discovered that some are disposing of theirs. If they find no one is interested - they consign them to the garbage! (In fact, I managed to inherit some at the reunion by expressing chargrin that they would throw these out).

If you have any interest in your family history, you ought to go visit them now, ask them for their stories and memories, and if they are dumping photos and documents that might help you or your children in future research, be ready to rescue them.

Generally, the gift they want and appreciate most, is that you spend a few minutes, maybe an hour, sitting up close in front of them, for one-on-one conversation. Sitting beside them means they will crank their upper body sideways so they can read your lips when you speak. Even if not totally deaf, many have become hard of hearing, and most have vision problems.

My Mom used to say that she hated those large group meetings in a room where many were talking at once. It sounded like a hen house, with everyone going "Bak-bak-BAK!" but she couldn't make out the words people, even close to her, were saying. At the reunion a number of other seniors expressed the same thought. They sat quietly or slumped together when the dining room was abuzz with chatter, or when there was a program type of event - especially if people avoided the mikes - because they understood no one. If I talked to them off to one side, or out on the deck, they came alive and were eager to have a conversation.

In fact, many of them are early risers. I am too, so when I came in from my walk all over the camp grounds before breakfast, or even if I stepped into the dining hall before that for a glass of water, here were a huddle of these seniors, who had been up since about 6 AM, patiently waiting for the rest of the world to wake up and come put out some breakfast. That turned out to be the best time to visit with a number of them. They were rested, their minds were alert, and they were very willing to visit with me in the large quiet room.

One of these ladies, when I met her in the ladies washroom was quite put out and pouting because she was not having a good time. Another one confided to me that she would not come next time because she couldn't make out what others were saying, and hardly anyone spoke to her.

But then there was Dad's cousin Nick from Manitoba, God bless him, who is legally blind and deaf, but could still manage to see and hear a bit when talking one-on-one with individuals. He made it his business to seek out each of his cousins, and then began on the next generation. He pulled them aside, and asked them about their lives, and how they were doing, and he listened patiently with his hand cupped behind his ear. When he got to me, I thought of Helen Keller, and commended him for this effort. Nick smiled and said softly, "God has been good to me so many years, surely I can bear with a few inconveniences the last part of my journey home."

Do you see that when you take time to honour and respectfully meet these older relatives on their own terms you and I are only going to bless ourselves in the end? There are things we can learn from them that will save us heartache and wrong turns in life.

Not all are mature and godly mentors, and focused on blessing us, but all still have the gift of life, and are made by God. To reject or disregard these relatives is to dishonour their Creator. I am also convinced, as my dear Grosz'mama Kroeker taught me, (and as the Bible teaches too), that we are going to experience in our old age, the same kind of treatment that we give others right now. The best insurance for lots of loving visits and attention when we grow frail and helpless, is that we give that to others while we still can.

Another lesson I learned is that appearances can be deceiving. A senior that looks the least likely can be the opposite underneath is probably going to surprise you. A very serious, rigid-looking adult can turn out to the funniest cut-up. A bow-legged cowboy with stiff joints may be willing to go up on a high pulley swing in a harness, and allow himself to be hoisted three stories up off the ground, and whirled in the air.

If you need a friend, and are prepared to be a friend first, you will find wonderfully ripe pickings among the seniors. They are not hung up on having only people their own age for friends, they are ready to connect to anyone who takes time to slow down and talk with them. They may have touching or funny stories about your parents and grandparents, and viewpoints that you won't benefit from if you don't meet them on their ground.

Sure, they may die soon, and if you've grown fond of them, you'll miss them, but if you don't reach out in friendship and kindness to the seniors in your world, you will lose out on far better lasting treasures - good memories of the unique people in your larger clan.

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