In recent years, grandparents have had more opportunities to participate in their grandchildren’s lives. For example, life expectancy has increased from less than 50 years to about 80 years since 1900, which leaves more time to create bonds and remain in grandchildren’s lives through the teenage years and older. Family sizes have also shrunk, which may allow grandparents to invest more time with each grandchild. And technology has opened up new avenues for staying in touch, through email, video-chat, and social media, so grandparents can make their presence felt no matter where or when.
To honor Grandparents Day on September 10, here are some ways grandparents contribute to their grandchildren’s lives beyond bringing sweets.
Grandparents nurture their grandchildren. For parents who rely on unpaid care, 35% turn to their own parents (usually their mother) for babysitting and childcare; four out of five say their own career goals wouldn’t be possible without the grandparents’ help. Often, grandparents’ homes serve as a safe haven for younger and older children alike when there may be family disruptions. In fact, children who grow up emotionally close to their grandparents are less likely to be depressed as adults. In return, grandparents may experience less stress, more socialization, additional physical activity, and even a longer life by being around grandchildren. Dr. Walter Nieri, MD, a geriatrician in Arizona, notes, “Relieving stress delays the shortening of telomeres, [a cellular process] associated with aging.”
Grandparents teach their grandchildren. From family history and culture to developmental milestones and learning basics, grandparents share their wisdom as well as practical skills. Grandparents who spend time reading to their grandchildren help develop language and communication competencies; the National Institute on Education found that reading aloud is the single most important activity for success and love of reading. In addition, Grandparents know the best family gossip! They offer lived experience of historical events and can be a reference for school projects. And, grandparents frequently pass on their passions (like baking or woodworking) to the young ones. This shared learning can also benefit the elderly. Post-menopausal women who spend time taking care of grandkids lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders. Dr. Kristine Arthur, a Californian internist, explains, “One thing that’s recommended to prevent memory loss in seniors is playing children’s puzzles and games, such as flipping over cards to remember things.”
Grandparents mentor their grandchildren. Grandparents not only model behavior for grandchildren, they also actively mentor them, providing guidance, advice, feedback, and support. Research has shown that as high as 90% of adults surveyed feel their grandparents influenced their values and behaviors. Grandparents show how to create boundaries, persist in tough situations, and determine right and wrong. For developing teens, close relationships with grandparents may be important for maturing with a coherent self-identity. By being caring, nonparental adults, grandparents serve as a foundation of emotional support, teaching each grandchild how to view themselves through their intergenerational wisdom and experience, as well family history and traditions. Grandparents gain a sense of purpose. “Grandchildren counteract that social isolation and loneliness,” says Dr. Nieri. “They give older people a sense of belonging and responsibility. It’s good for their self-esteem that they’re taking care of their grandchildren.”
Studies indicate an average of five involved adults are needed to help each child fully develop emotionally and socially. With the senior population booming over the next decade, we have a real opportunity to tap into the greatest influencers of all to help rear happy healthy children—grandparents!