Celebrating Grandparents and the Value of Generational Love

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“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.” — George Washington Carver

By Lori Stevic-Rust, Ph.D. ABPP Clinical health psychologist; Author , Greedy for Life.

The value of generational love has been a part of our family for decades. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I became an aunt. I was young and only knew about having fun and being cool. There was no saying, “you can’t have that cookie until after dinner;” instead I would show them how to get it from the counter without being caught. They were my sweet little girls in pig tails. Just a few years ago, or so it seems, they stopped wearing those pig tails and became amazing women with families of their own. I never could have imagined that anything could be better than being their aunt, but then I became a great aunt. I moved up the generational ladder and caught a glimpse of what being a grandparent someday might feel like.

On a recent visit to my niece Jennifer’s home in North Carolina, I had the privilege of spending some dedicated time with my three great-nephews, Xzavier (age 4) Lennox (age 3) and Nixon (age 10 months). I spent three days saying yes to everything that they asked for, giving baths that had no rules for time or splashing, and absorbing some of the most precious moments. I was sitting on the floor while Nixon took his first steps. I not only had the privilege of watching him walk but of seeing the look on my niece’s face as she watched her baby take his first steps. And the joy of watching Xzavier go off to preschool for the first time just as I had watched his mother. My 101-year-old grandmother is right when she says that the generational ladder gives us perspective and love beyond our deepest imagination.

Studies have clearly shown us that being a grandparent and having a grandparent affords us many life benefits. For example, children who have ongoing and consistent contact with a grandparent experience less emotional and behavioral problems. Similarly, grandparents who are actively involved with their grandchildren suffer from less depression as they age and tend to experience overall greater happiness in later years.

There is much to be gained by sharing time with those one, two and sometimes three generations above and below us. In the many years that I have worked in senior care, I have witnessed the power of intergenerational programs. Seniors who were non-responsive suddenly would smile and become engaged. But it wasn’t just the seniors who would benefit, the children would become animated, happy and eager to gain the attention of the seniors as well. Intergenerational relationships are a gift to all who participate. Seniors stay cognitively active and engaged with life when learning about technology or life views from younger people. Similarly, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren inevitable benefit from the wisdom and traditions of those who lived in a different historical time.

My daughters, as young women, have not only gained from the support and guidance of their grandparents but have developed a sensitivity and deep understanding of the rights and struggles of women — not from a textbook but from their great-great grandmother who lived through the experiences. As a generational family, we have all been enriched and forever changed by the traditions and life lessons that are learned around the kitchen table.

In the late 1970s, a housewife from West Virginia, Marian McQuade, wanted to encourage and highlight the importance of visiting the lonely elderly living in nursing homes. Further, she wanted to persuade grandchildren to stay connected to their grandparents to learn from their life lessons and wisdom. She lobbied for a day to focus on the value of grandparents.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law National Grandparents Day. It is recognized on the first Sunday after Labor Day. Unfortunately, very few people know about the day and even less celebrate or acknowledge it. In fact, more people seem to know about Groundhog Day and national toss a fruit cake day.

While I am not a grandparent yet, based on the 2011 AARP survey, I could be, based on my age. The results showed the average age for a first time grandparent is 47-years-old. More specifically, in the survey of grandparents who were age 50 and older, 24 percent reported having grandchildren of different ethnicity, race or mixed race and 55 percent of having five or more grandchildren compared to grandparents of different generations.

However, a grandparent is a grandparent is a grandparent whether it is a 50-year-old new grandparent or an experienced 100 + year old, they all list spoiling and unconditional loving as the number one priority. That said, the role of a grandparent seemingly has expanded over the years. Today, there are more grandparents actively participating in the raising of grandchildren, providing financial support and sharing in custodial care as well as spoiling.

In addition, consider that if a person lives to age 65, their life expectancy is about 84-years-old and that one out of every four of them will live past 90 years and one out of 10 of them will live past the age of 95. This means that there continues to be more grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents actively participating in the lives of their grandchildren. What an incredible opportunity for generations to learn from one another.

In the AARP survey, more than 80 percent of grandparents reported communicating with their grandchildren at least once a month by phone, e-mail, Skype or text messaging. The conversations were important and often personal ranging from topics of morals and values, spirituality, illegal drugs, bullying, sex and drinking. In fact, many grandchildren report reaching out to discuss emotionally heavy topics with grandparents as opposed to parents citing that grandparents are often less judging and offer unconditional support.

We all benefit when we value, respect and celebrate our generations. Reaching up two and three generations before us for guidance and insight affords us something that other relationships can’t provide.

On this grandparent’s day, the challenge to all of us is to reach out to our biological grandparents, our surrogate grandparents, and the seniors in our community and celebrate the gift of being generational caregivers.

Editor’s Note: For more articles on celebrating grandparents click here.
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