Sometimes I daydream about having my own office.  Right now, I use a hutch in the kitchen, which doesn’t allow enough square footage to personalize this space.  When I have an empty nest, I can convert one of the kids’ rooms into my office.

As I thumb through magazines, I think about selecting all new furniture and cabinets for a cutting-edge, modern feel. My shiny office might be adorned with chrome and glass furnishings. I’d populate them with black office accessories and add a splash of color—maybe turquoise. But if everything is straight from the factory, my office will not project depth, complexity, warmth or wisdom.

Sometimes I fantasize about selecting furniture, rugs, cabinets, shelves and objets d’art that will give my office a traditional feel, something along the lines of a library in a Victorian mansion.  Maybe I could even find a sliding ladder for my bookshelves? Then I worry that my office will feel inflexible, stuffy, musty and entrenched in tradition for the sake of tradition.

The better option might be to find a way to combine tradition with innovation. This way I can acknowledge the strength of tried-and true designs while at the same time showing the willingness to try out new ideas, to respond to the present moment, but in ways that draw on the wisdom of experience. Maybe choosing the theme “four seasons” and mixing old items with new would express the value of continuity amid constant change.

As a member of Reliefs Society, I see this same principle in action: consistency amid change.  We have a long-standing organization that reaches back into the 19th century while also responding to very contemporary concerns.  On the micro level, we also have tradition and innovation within our own wards.

I’ve attended many wards where the Relief Society is populated by women ages from at least eight, possibly ten decades of life: those 18 and 19 years old in some wards, as well as women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and in some wards, women 100 plus years old.

In the US, the average life expectancy has raised by decades over the last century.  Recent medical innovations give people more ability for more years, allowing people greater years of productivity at home and in their communities, including their faith communities. People are postponing retirement and working into their 70s and beyond.

I am thrilled when I see auxiliary presidencies and church committees that show diversity in age range. Yes, it might take a little more time to explore ideas when women have diverse generational perspective–just like it takes a little more talent to decorate an office with items that are both heirlooms and newly purchased. However, I feel more confident that the needs of all women are considered when a diversity of age range is represented.

True, some of the more mature sisters might have mobility problems or other issues that prevent them from actively serving in auxiliaries or on committees.  Advocacy for people with disabilities doesn’t need to stop when a person’s disabilities are age-related.  The hard-won wisdom of mature women can be shared with others if Relief Society sisters will seek them out and ask them to share their insights.

It’s truly a win-win proposition available to all who will broaden their sphere of influence beyond their comfort zone.  People usually just to make connections with people whose age differs only 15 years or fewer—whether that’s older or younger.  Similarly, sisters who have already launched their children could make an effort to befriend women who still have children at home.  We are a more mobile people, so we don’t always have extended family living locally. But we can establish fictive kin networks that offer some of the benefits of extended families.

As a gerontologist, I have frequent opportunity to interact with women in late life. They still have a role to play in teaching, mentoring, and blessing the younger generations.  Everyone wants purpose throughout their entire life span. Research shows that social engagement correlates with quality of life and length of life.  And involving older adults is decidedly not an act of charity on the part of the younger women. And when I say “younger,” I might be referring to someone who is 60 because I associate with octogenarians and nonagenarians on a regular basis.

So when I get my new office, I hope to enjoy an heirloom desk with a state-of-the-art computer, combining the best of tradition and innovation. And when I interact with women from church, I hope to make an effort to form intergenerational relationships because they enrich the lives of Relief Society sisters from all nine decades.


  1. Linda Rokes

    February 21, 2014

    Beautifully written, profoundly accurate, greatly appreciated. Thanks, Karen

  2. Diane

    February 21, 2014

    Lovely post! I remember a young ward we were in when I was in my late twenties. Everyone was in their late twenties. Except the bishop. Who was *gasp* 40. I can’t tell you the number of times we wished for a few grey heads in that congregation. For a little of the wisdom that comes with age and life lived. Our ward has aged. We are now the grey-haired ‘mentors’ to the young crowd just starting to raise their children. It’s a perfect balance.

  3. Rhonda

    February 21, 2014

    It’s one of the things I say often to other members that it is interesting that The Lord separates the men (of course not all high priests are older but most are) but the women are all together. I think there is something g o this. Women need women – of all ages!!

  4. Raven

    February 21, 2014

    I would love to see this happen more often. I wonder how we can really foster those kinds of relationships? As you point out, it has to go both ways. We all need to stretch past our comfort zones and discover the richness of inter-generational friendship. This post encourages me to make more of an effort.

  5. Shelah

    February 21, 2014

    Couldn’t agree more. For most of our married lives, we lived in wards that were populated by people who were mostly just like us (meaning, young graduate students or professionals who didn’t plan to lay deep roots in the community). In two or three of those wards, the resentment from the “long-term” residents was palpable, especially if those people were outside the 25-35 age range. Did I do much to branch out and make friends with them? Not really, I must admit.

    It’s ironic to me that now that we live in Utah, where you might expect to find fairly homogeneous suburban neighborhoods, we now live in a ward that has a really good variety of people of different ages. The houses here were built in the late 40s and 50s, so there are families who have been here since their backyard was farmland, others who moved in later and stayed (once they get their hooks on you in this neighborhood, it’s hard to leave) and others who are young couples just starting out.

    I like Relief Society here more than I ever have anywhere else. In previous wards, attempts at inclusiveness seemed to fall flat, since it was apparent that the vast majority of the people were in roughly the same demographic, but here the conversation is rich and varied, and I learn so much from the 86-year-old former elementary school teacher, the 45-year-old doctor, the 30-year-old historian, and the teenage mom who comes with her grandma and bravely raises her hand to participate in the discussions.

  6. Kellie aka Selwyn

    February 21, 2014

    I’ve been in wards where I was the youngest sister by a good 20 years, to wards where there were only three women over the age of 60.

    I love being in RS discussions where so many contribute, from all areas of the age, experience, ability and faith spectrums.

    Also: I think a sliding ladder is a must.

  7. Karen D. Austin

    February 22, 2014

    Linda: Thanks for the comment! Hugs.

    Diane: Isn’t it funny how the meaning of “old” changes as we age? I have a friend in her 80s who tells me, “It’s so great that you are working with those old people.”

    Rhonda: Oh, I’ve never thought about how we in RS aren’t age segregated. Great point!

    Raven: Have fun developing new friendships!

    Shelah: Wow, you have some great age diversity in your ward. Cool.

    Kel: Yes, diversity of all kinds is so enriching. It’s challenging at times, but the payoff is great. I’m thinking because I’m under 5 feet (apx 151 cms) that I can rationalize the purchase!

    And don’t forget about those gals who don’t come on Sunday. There are many “invisible” sisters who have limited energy, so they choose to stay home on Sunday. My mom is one of those people. She hasn’t been to church regularly for 5 or more years, and people forget that she’s “out there.” But she has a lot to offer others.

  8. Michelle

    February 23, 2014

    I live in a wonderfully diverse ward. Probably one of the best tools for creating unity has been visiting teaching. My companion is 70, we visit women who are 45, 50 and 85. My visiting teachers are 70 and 80 and I count them among my dearest, closest friends.

    Also, we’ve started a RS blog where we feature one woman each week. It’s done wonders for helping the sisters get to know each other. I think it’s sad when we learn about our wonderful neighbor when they write her obituary– let’s get to know her now!

  9. Karen D. Austin

    February 24, 2014

    Michelle: Thanks for the link to your ward’s RS blog. I read a half dozen of the profiles. What a great idea. How wonderful that y’all have so many great women in your ward (which I think is true of every ward — if people have eyes to see).

  10. Candy Wilde

    February 24, 2014

    I loved this article, how we perceive age changes so much as we get older, I used to think 40 was old…now I’m forty I still feel like Im 20 but a hell of a lot wiser.
    Thanks I enjoyed reading your article

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