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November 25, 1997

Connecting the Generations:

The New Role of Grandparents

by Roma Hanks, Ph.D.

Grandparents today have an opportunity that has never been before. Because of increased longevity and better health, grandparents can look forward to knowing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren well into their adulthood. The average age of a first-time grandparent today is 45 and the life expectancy in America is almost 80. The relationship that you build with your grandchildren will have time to blossom and to be passed to a fourth generation during your lifetime. But long-term relationships can present challenges.

The grandparent role historically has been multi-faceted. Grandparents are seen as the living ancestor, family historian, teacher, mentor, role model, nurturer, crony, pal, conspirator with the grandchild against the parent, wizard, Santa Claus, and hero. Most of these roles imply that the grandparent is a resource outside the child's nuclear family, someone to whom the child can turn when she needs more than her parents can or will provide. Today's grandparents are more likely to be part of the child's everyday world. Almost 4 million American grandchildren live in households with grandparents, and nearly half of them live with a grandparent with no parent present. These grandparents are raising the children of an "absent generation" created by parents' substance abuse, family violence, incarceration, divorce, dual careers, teenage pregnancy, poverty, and early death. Meredith Minkler and Kathleen Roe studied grandparents of the children of the crack cocaine epidemic and found that caregiving grandmothers often neglect their own mental and physical health in order to provide for the needs of the children they are raising.

Arthur Kornhaber has studied grandparenting since 1970. Grandparent caregivers tracked in Kornhaber's research report that they receive little social support for their efforts. Although the rights of caregiving grandparents increasingly are being recognized, it is still true that many experience difficulty with exercising one or more of the following "rights": obtaining medical treatment for their grandchildren when they do not have formal custody; carrying grandchildren as dependents on insurance policies and medical plans; gaining recognition with schools as appropriate decision makers; obtaining social security benefits for grandchildren who have not been adopted by their grandparents; meeting guidelines for families to obtain housing and financial aid; and retaining custody of the grandchild if a parent returns, even if the parent has serious problems that interfere with his ability to care for the child.

My own research has been with grandparents who are not the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, but are trying to define for themselves and their families what are appropriate roles for grandparents of today. These grandparents are for the most part healthy, relatively young, still working and managing active social lives, yet committed to being involved in a process in which they are developing along with their grandchildren. In a series of focus groups, grandparents told me that their major concerns about grandparenting were "knowing when to back off" and how to manage their desires to indulge their grandchildren. The grandparents felt that they needed instruction in what to expect as a child moves through developmental stages. They were also interested in learning conflict- resolution and stress-management techniques so they could handle disputes with the parents and other grandparents in the child's family.

On the positive side, grandparents in my study wanted to develop soulful relationships with their grandchildren, to be friends and confidants. They said that the greatest joy of grandparenting came from the unconditional love that they both gave and received. Some of the grandparents in the focus groups were happy about the chance to "parent again," seeing grandparenting as life's great second chance. These grandparents recognized that their role in the life of their grandchildren had much to do with the history and continuity of the family. One grandmother said, "I look at my grandchild and see the continuation of my husband's and my love." Another described grandparenting as joyful because it allows the grandparent "to see family values passed down." This concern over family values, love, and continuity was also seen as contributing to a major responsibility of grandparenting and of living in the middle years. One grandparent told me, "It has made me re- examine my own morals and the image I project to others."

I think sometimes the influence of grandparents is so subtle that we do not notice its strength or duration. My parents died when my children were 4 and 9, but their influence is still apparent after 16 years. I was not surprised at my daughter Kate's choice of environmental science as a career. When Kate was less than 3 years old, she and I were working in my flower garden, a favorite place for both of us. I noticed that she had managed to contort her body so that her face was on the ground. "What are you doing?" She looked up at me with a big smile and dirt around her mouth and said, "Kissing that worm." No one had told her that earthworms were not kissable creatures. No one had spoiled her feelings of unity with other species in her environment. Perhaps she had her grandfather's spirit. Her favorite photo of my dad was an image of him with a wild bird perched trustingly on his fingers. How quietly grandparents find their way into the fabric of a grandchild's life, and there they stay...forever!

It is my belief that grandparenting is the most important family role of the new century. I say that because grandparents are just now discovering all the possibilities of relating to their grandchildren. Whether they are providing full-time care or working on a deeply supportive relationship, grandparents will have influence over a longer period of their grandchildren's lives than ever before. They will be healthier, more active, more involved, and more purposeful in relating to their grandchildren than were the grandparents that you and I knew. Their influence will spread beyond their own families.

Many grandparents are already involved in programs for other people's grandchildren. The Foster Grandparenting Program began in 1960 to match low- income, healthy elders with children who have special needs. In 1963, the Adopt-a- Grandparent Program began providing weekly visits by school children to long-term- care facilities for elders. Creative Grandparenting is an organization formed in the 1980s to provide support for positive grandparent relationships. It has expanded its focus to include tutoring services and other strategies for becoming involved with other people's grandchildren. The "intergenerational movement" has grown as a "fundamental expression of citizenship as a collaborative task, an ideal wherein elders and children collaborate to make a difference in the world they both inhabit." (Moody & Disch, 1989) The formation of Generations United in 1986 brought together over 100 organizations committed to promote public policy that benefits all the generations.

Older people are a political force in our society because they get involved. The major elder interest group, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), has over 33 million members aged 50 and older. The AARP has stressed the need to look at issues of poverty, social service, and health care in intergenerational perspective. The organization has worked hard to dispel the "greedy geezer" image of older people as a group of self-interested seniors who do not care if keeping social programs that benefit them means losing benefits to children and families. Indeed, the evidence shows that the majority of voting seniors do not favor the dissolution of programs that benefit younger people. Why should they? Their own families may benefit from these programs.

Grandparents and other seniors have substantial influence politically and economically. As consumers, grandparents and teenagers are the two leading groups who have the most disposable income. Businesses are becoming aware of the power of grandparents to influence family spending and to shape the attitudes of the future workforce. The work ethic, social conscience, and economic responsibility of the grandparent generation are appealing to leaders in industry. For example, the CEO of the Warren Featherbone Company, manufacturer of the Alexis line of baby clothes, dreams of "a Woodstock for Grandparents" as a catalyst to energize a great movement of grandparents toward recognizing their power to influence life in the new millennium.

Today there is a growing alliance of grandparents who will positively influence the lives of their grandchildren and the younger generations in their society, some by providing urgently needed daily care, others by building deep emotional connections with their grandchildren. Grandparents are as diverse as people are diverse. Grandparents and grandchildren need a variety of services and support systems. Most of all, they need recognition of their enormous potential as new roles emerge and new opportunities unfold.


Dr. Roma Hanks is associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of South Alabama and director of the gerontology program.


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