/The age of the grandparent

The age of the grandparent

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

There’s been little to do during this winter’s days of chilly grey overcast. So I’ve taken to thumbing through stacks of photo prints that have been gathering dust over many years, even decades.

I’m staring at a very interesting one: A snap of a curly-haired me in short pants standing in front of my parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

Four generations gathered together was unusual back then. Folks often didn’t live long enough to be pictured with great grandchildren, or even grandchildren. 

Sixty years ago the average Canadian could expect to live into their sixties, often not old enough to see their children’s children, and almost certainly not their grandchildren’s children.

Seeing three and four generations together is more likely nowadays as Canadian life expectancies have climbed into the low eighties. Rising life expectancy combined with falling birth rates have created a steady rise in the ratio of grandparents to grandchildren. 

A Finnish study shows that children born in 1860 shared on average four years of life with a grandmother and one year of life with a grandfather. A child born in 1950 shared an average 24 years of life with a grandmother and 13 years with a grandfather.

The Economist magazine reports that there now are 1.5 billion grandparents in the world compared with only half a billion in 1960. That means grandparents now make up 20 per cent of the world population compared with 17 per cent 60 years ago. It estimates there will be two billion grandparents by 2050, or 22 per cent of the population.

Canada, at the last estimate in 2017, had 7.5 million grandparents – 4.2 million grandmothers and 3.3 million grandfathers. Their average age in 2017 was 68, up from 65 in 1995.

So, we have entered the age of the grandparent. And, the rising ratio of grandparents to grandchildren is changing the way we live. 

More working mothers – more single parents in general – have created gaps in the time parents can spend raising their children. More people living longer, healthier lives has meant more grandparents available to help fill the gaps.  

Studies in the United Kingdom show that grandparents spend an average eight hours a week looking after grandchildren. Also, two-thirds of grandparents make financial contributions to their grandchildren’s upbringing.

Other studies show that the increasing involvement of grandparents in child care is not restricted to the U.K. It is being seen across Europe, Asia and North America.

Babysitting is small part of the contributions that growing numbers of grandparents are bringing to society.

Grandparents are important teachers in today’s complicated societies. They have many stories and experiences to share; stories that provide links to a child’s family and cultural heritage. 

Grandparents’ stories help children understand who they are and where they come from. And, grandparents’ experiences teach the upholding of traditions while passing along moral guidance.

Research at the University of Oxford has shown that children with a high level of grandparental involvement had fewer emotional and behavioural problems. Other studies have concluded that as many as nine out of 10 adult grandchildren feel their grandparents influenced their values and beliefs.

Grandchildren are more likely to listen to their grandparents more than their parents or other adults. That’s probably because parents and other adults such as teachers have to set and enforce rules that children might not like.  

Grandparents, who have little role as enforcers in children’s lives, get to listen, sympathize and comfort. They also try help children understand the adults making and enforcing the rules. 

Traditional grandparent thinking and roles are changing along with social and technological changes. 

The American Association of Retired People (AARP) says its surveys show that one in 20 grandparents now prefer their grandchildren to call them by their first name. Also, today’s grandparents are more accepting of grandchildren of a different race, ethnicity or sexualities.

A majority of grandparents surveyed by AARP said they would support a gay grandchild.

One thing that has not changed about grandparents over the centuries is an old Italian proverb that goes something like this: 

“If nothing is going well, call your grandmother.”