It's Great to Be a Great-Grandparent
Everybody talks about how great it is to be a grandpa or a grandma. But most of us become grandparents sometime between our mid-40s and mid-50s. That means work and other commitments can get in the way of fully enjoying that special role.
Fortunately, nature often gives us a second chance. "Because we are living longer, more people are becoming great-grandparents," says Gary J. Kennedy, M.D., a past president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. And that can be a great experience.
Becoming a great-grandparent also offers a chance to do something good for our health. "One key to healthy aging is staying socially engaged," Dr. Kennedy explains. "But as we age, our social network tends to shrink. The one exception is family. That usually expands. And those family relationships become more important."
Great-grandparents have a unique family role, says Sheri Steinig, M.S.W., special projects director for Generations United. Her group encourages positive interaction among generations. "Great-grandparents are living ancestors. They're the keepers of family histories and legends. They can also serve as mentors and role models while grandparents are still working."
Dr. Kennedy and Steinig emphasize the benefits that come from making the effort to be a "great" great-grandparent. For instance, children who have a relationship with their great-grandparents have a better sense of who they are and where they come from. They often do better in school because they have higher self-esteem. They also have less involvement with drugs and alcohol. And the more involved great-grandparents are, the lower their risk for depression. They also gain personal satisfaction.
But involvement takes effort. Steinig says a great-grandparent doesn't need to live in the same town to have a relationship. "The benefits happen whether contacts are face-to-face or long distance." But it is important, she adds, for great-grandparents to strive for face-to-face contact with great-grandchildren in the beginning. The great-grandparents must decide whether they are going to invite their great-grandkids to come visit or whether they're going to go see the youngsters.
In establishing a relationship, Steinig says, the grandparents' role is important. "People need to be proactive in reaching out to their own grandkids." Grandparents need to remain a part of their grandchildren's lives after they've grown and started their own families.
Keep in touch
Once the relationship is launched, it's important to have ongoing contact. "That can be through e-mail, letters and cards, and phone conversations," Steinig says. Here are some ways that generations can interact:
Older adults can share family stories and histories. Kids love to know where they come from and what their parents and grandparents were like when young. When a great-grandparent tells great-grandchildren about his or her own grandparents, that's a connection spanning six generations.
Older adults can copy and share family pictures. Kids may learn what their parents were like from their grandparents. But great-grandparents may be the only ones who can show what their grandparents were like.
Older adults can seek shared interests. For instance, if older kids like to cook, a great-grandparent can share family recipes. Or great-children can help in the garden.
Older adults can share old or create new traditions. Simple things can be special bonds between the great-grandparent and the great-grandchild.
Dr. Kennedy suggests that great-grandparents use family milestones to keep in touch rather than depending on contact at holidays. Holidays, he says, are often hectic, with a lot of competition for people's time and attention. Great-grandparents should stay aware of birthdays, christenings, graduations, anniversaries and such events as school plays or concerts. These are great opportunities, he says, for being included in great-grandkids' lives. And few things feel better than being included.