The Importance of Grandparents

The importance of grandparents in the lives of children can't be denied. Before our culture became so mobile, it was common for children to grow up surrounded by extended family, including one or both sets of grandparents; who often moved in with their adult children when they became frail.

My own childhood mirrored this now quaint picture of the past, and I've always felt happy about the fact that my children grew up involved with both sets of their grandparents.

Yet, even as my kids were growing up with weekly grandparent visits as a regular part of their lives, they were already in the minority. Many of their friends rarely saw their own grandparents, who often lived hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away. Even with the obstacle of distance, I heard many of these young children talk excitedly about seeing grandparents whenever they could.

In recent years—often because of economic issues—a reversal of this trend is bringing a significant number of families back to the idea of sharing responsibilities and, in some cases, living spaces.

According to Pew Research Social Trends, a record 57 million Americans, or 18 percent of the population of the United States, lived in multi-generational family households in 2012. That's double the number who lived in such households in 1980.

Threading its way through these changes, another type of grandparenting has quietly maintained a strong presence in our society: the grandparents who have become surrogate parents to their grandchildren because, for one reason or another, the parents cannot fulfill such a role. Their numbers are large and their influence is felt throughout the country. If not for them, their grandchildren would have had no familial anchor and, sometimes, no home.

Grandchildren taking on caregiver role

When I was growing up, few grandparents lived to the age considered to be the "oldest old"—those that reach 85, 90 and beyond. But as modern medical care helps people live increasingly longer lives, we are now seeing more grandchildren stepping up to be caregivers.

These young caregivers are often in what should be their formative adult years, yet they are torn between trying to better their lives through education and job advancement, and the loyalty they feel toward their aging—often ailing—grandparent.

We see questions on the AgingCare.com forum from this generation much more frequently than we did in the past. Many of these young caregivers adore their grandparent(s), but they are left to navigate our complicated and inadequate elder support system while trying to make a life of their own.

Celebrate National Grandparent's Day

No matter what the situation, the bond between a grandparent and grandchild is precious and unique. That love and care is something to be celebrated.

During the 1970s, a grassroots effort spearheaded by Marian Lucille Herndon McQuade of West Virginia led to the creation of a day set aside to celebrate grandparents.

The first Grandparent's Day was deemed a national holiday in 1978 and has since been celebrated each year on the first Sunday after Labor Day. This special day is meant to honor the love between grandparents and grandchildren, as well as to help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance that the older adults in their lives can offer.

Considering the history of multi-generational households and the staying power of the influence of grandparents in the lives of countless children, it's a day that deserves recognition.

This special day also provides many of us who know young caregivers who provide assistance to their grandparents the opportunity to offer some recognition or a helping hand. Ask around in social groups and religious circles and see if there is a grandparent/grandchild pair that could use a little help or just a bouquet of flowers to recognize their mutual devotion.

Don't forget your own grandparents, as well as any other elders who have meant something special to you. This day is a reminder that we owe a lot to our grandparents' generation and all of those who've passed down love, caring and hard-won wisdom.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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