Multigenerational families have increased in number because of the extended life span of individuals. This increased longevity also has led to an increase in the number of older adults in our communities. Census reports of the past decade identify adults age 85 and older as the fastest growing population group. There has been an approximate 12% increase in the number of individuals age 65 years and older during the past decade. Predictions of continued growth among this age group over the next decade are attributed to the large number of baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) who will turn 65 years old in the upcoming years.
Given the expansion in the numbers of older adults, the numbers of grandparents and even of great grandparents is expected to increase. In addition, the time spent in the grand-parenting role and the likelihood of having adult grandchildren has also increased. An American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) study estimated that 56% of Americans 65 years and older have at least one adult grandchild. This figure is particularly striking when compared with data from two decades ago, when adolescents were unlikely to have known both of their grandparents. Today, 70% of older adults are grandparents. On average, grandparents are endowed with their new status at about age 45 years, but grandparents can range in age from 30 to 110 years old.
The lives of older adults and their progeny are inextricably connected and illuminated by today’s changing family structures. Grandparents’ entrenchment in contemporary family structure has received the attention of the most recent U.S. Census. Multigenerational families tend to include grandparent, parent, and grandchild, with either the grandparent or parent having the responsibility as householder. There are 3.9 million multigenerational families in the United States (about 3.7% of all households). Although the definition of the multigenerational family encompasses householders who care for both their parents and children, in an estimated 2.6 million multigenerational families, the grandparents are the primary householders. Demographic factors such as increases in life expectancy, rates of divorce, and rates of remarriage contribute to changes in family structures and by extension changes in the very nature of the grand-parenting role.
Grandparent is a term generally used to refer to one’s ancestor. The term connotes caring, kindness, preservation of family values, and the like. Scholars lack consensus on the definition of the grandparenting role but agree that the role can be enacted in a variety of ways. The manner in which a grandparent assumes the grandparenting role is as diverse as the individuals holding the role.
During the preindustrial era, grandparents traditionally held roles of authority and high status in the family. Over the years, the grandparent role was influenced by societal changes, and the authoritarian role became less frequently held. Its absence was replaced with a more formal but friendly grandparent-grandchild relationship.
Older adults can simultaneously provide assistance to their offspring and play a meaningful role in their descendents’ lives. The grandparent-grandchild relationship largely is devoid of the burden of parental responsibilities because grandparents often prefer to function as mentors and role models. A traditional classification of the grandparent role includes three dimensions: formal, fun seeking, and distant. Grandparents often opt for a fun-seeking (pleasurable) relationship with their grandchild.
The 20th century ushered in a new focus on the role of grandparents, highlighting its diversity and complexity. Grandparent roles vary according to geographic location and ethnic group membership. Furthermore, grandparents who live far away from their grandchildren are less able to offer instrumental assistance in terms of caregiving. They also visit with their grandchildren less often. Recently, grandparents have become a focus for anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars in their efforts at understanding human evolution and behavior. For example, some studies attribute the decrease in mortality rate of toddlers (Gambia) and the increase in the fertility and life span of Kashi women (India) to the active roles of grandparents in those societies. Regardless of the pliability of the grandparent role and its susceptibility to sociocultural influences, the importance of grandparents seems to cut across class, ethnic, and cultural dimensions.
The grandparent-grandchild relationship is unique because it is exempt from the emotional intensity and responsibility common to the parenting experience. Grandparents may relate to their grandchild on three dimensions: exchange of services, influence over grandchild, and frequency of contact. One classification of the grandparent’s style of relating to the grandchild included the categories of (1) detached, (2) passive, (3) supportive, (4) authoritative, or (5) influential according to their level of involvement. Although the degree of involvement is low on all three dimensions for the detached styles (detached, passive, authoritative), a high level of contact with the child characterizes the influential and supportive styles. An example of the influential style is the active parent-like role (whereby grandparents provide caregiving assistance to parents and have frequent contact with the grandchild).
Another method of characterizing the styles of grandparenting focuses on different dimensions, including (1) centrality (role of grandparent is central in the grandparent’s life); (2) valued elder (grandparent is the prized holder of tradition); (3) immortality through clan (grandparent’s identification with grandchild as well as feelings of responsibility for family members); and (4) reinvolvement with personal past (reliving their own lives through their grandchildren).
Grandparenting styles have not escaped the purview of the emotional realm. Characterization of the grandparent-grandchild relationship has focused on measuring cohesion among the different generations of the family. Intergenerational relationships have been classified using six dimensions, including (1) emotional closeness, (2) level of contact, (3) frequency of agreement, (4) importance of familial obligations to members, (5) geographic proximity, and (6) function helping behavior.
Scholars have also maintained that the grandparent-grandchild relationship is influenced by relational factors. Strained family relationships may impinge on the relationship between the grandparent and the grandchild. Relational quality between the parent and grandparent can determine the quality of the relationship between the grandparent and the grandchild. These intergenerational interactions are key because the parent brokers the initial grandparent-grandchild relationship.
Intergenerational bonds are also dependent on the degree of disruptions in the families’ lives. Life cycle changes due to separation, divorce, and remarriage have differing impacts on the preservation of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. For example, grandchildren often become estranged from the parents (grandparents) of the noncustodial parent. For these grandparents, who had an established relationship with the child before the divorce, the loss can be profound. Often, the only recourse for noncustodial grandparents is to pursue legal measures to ensure a continued relationship with their grandchildren, and even this is not always successful. It is important to note, however, that divorce also may result in more reliance on custodial grandparents for support, and subsequently closer ties develop between that grandparent and the child.
Other predictors of the relational dyad include factors such as frequency of contact, gender of grandparent, kinship position, and age of the grandparent. The amount of time spent together also contributes to the child’s experience of having a close relationship with the grandparent because grandchildren who live closer tend to have more contact. Grandchildren report more contact with their grandmothers relative to their grandfathers. Consequently, they also report feeling closer to their grandmothers than their grandfathers. Because the grandmother often is younger and lives longer than the grandfather, this contributes to the greater closeness with the grandmother. Contact alone, however, is an inadequate determinant of closeness in grandparenting relationships. For instance, when given a choice, grandchildren tend to select their maternal grandparents as the preferred one regardless of geographic proximity. However, when only one grandparent is alive the maternal–paternal divide (i.e., kinship position) loses its significance. The living grandparent is reported as the one with the closest relationship by default. A lack of closeness between grandparent and grandchild is also reported among grandchildren whose grandparents are older and have health problems relative to grandchildren with younger and healthier grandparents.
Moreover, as grandparents become more socially removed from the grandchild’s world, relationships become increasingly remote. This particular dynamic is prominent among immigrant families in which there is a gap in the social values between acculturated grandchildren and their grandparents. For example, embracing mainstream values and language can create a cultural divide within the Latin American family. Grandchildren who speak Spanish are closer to their grandparents and are more likely to live with them, whereas grandchildren who speak only English are more likely to move away in an effort to establish an independent identity.
Grandparents stand to benefit from a close relationship with their grandchildren. When the relationship is close, grandparents experience a greater sense of well-being and improved morale. Some grandparents even admit to having a preferred or favored grandchild. The close grandparent-grandchild relationship helps to mitigate feelings of helplessness that can accompany the attainment of senior status, thus enhancing mental health. When the intergenerational significance of the grandparent’s contribution is considered, the instrumental as well as expressive support to the family is inescapable. Grandparent relationships serve as a reliever of stress, provide needed caregiving assistance, and aid in the child’s ego development. Grandparents also offer children a sense of security and a vision for the future.
If deprived of a close grandparent relationship, an individual stands to lose additional nurturing, emotional security, and a cultural and historical sense of self. For example, grandparents participate in feeding, caretaking, and mentoring their grandchildren. For grandchildren, the significance of the relationship also extends into their adulthood. Adult grandchildren continue to value their contacts with their grandparents and are influenced by their presence. Usually, adult grandchildren assume responsibility for maintaining their relationship with their grandparents, but for most, the frequency of their contact is reduced. Nonetheless, grandparents strongly influence their adult grandchildren’s ideology by creating realistic examples of older people.
Developmental Perspective On Grandparents
Stages in an individual’s adult life can be grouped into periods of time spent in courtship, marriage (with or without children), family life (with children at home), empty nest, grandparenthood, and beyond. Some rewards of aging include retirement, an absence from active parenting once children have grown, enjoyment of leisure time, availability to pursue traveling opportunities, and the pursuit of abandoned personal goals during child rearing. In addition to these, the customary grandparent role usually provides much joy and gratification, and makes this an eagerly anticipated stage in the development of the individual.
Grandparenting traditionally has been identified as occurring along the developmental trajectory from middle to late adulthood. A hallmark of middle adulthood is for the individual to develop a genuine concern for the welfare of future generations and to contribute significantly to the world of family and work. Developmental theorists such as Erikson have identified the key developmental task central to this stage as the resolution of conflict between generativity and self-absorption. The essence of successful grandparenthood is embodied in self-choices promoting generativity. Grandparents’ caring behavior toward their grandchildren can be interpreted as supporting the continuity of their lineage. This support manifests itself in the form of child care, financial assistance, and the support of the leisure activities of their grandchildren. We often underestimate the extent to which grandparents contribute to the development of their grandchildren indirectly through their emotional, physical, and financial support of their children (the grandchild’s parents). Thus, support from grandparents can be seen as contributing both directly and indirectly to the survival of the grandchild, which undoubtedly contributes to the survival of the grandparent’s line of descent.
Grandparenting offers a natural outlet for attainment of one’s middle adulthood developmental milestones. For example, two of Havighurst’s seven major developmental tasks (helping teenage children to become responsible adults and having a social civic responsibility) can be attained through having a close relationship with your grandchild. Through the relationship with a grandchild, grandparents can provide guidance and instruction to their younger family members while contributing to the development of society’s next generation.
Intersection Of The Grandparenting Role And Societal Changes
The reality of societal changes has had an impact on the role of grandparents. Contemporary grandparents are working later in life. Even after retirement, today’s grandparents are more likely to pursue a lifestyle that precludes the assumption of child care duties. Grandparents are also less likely to live close to their children, which affects the role of the grandparents in the grandchild’s life as well as the kind of assistance offered. Baby boomers who are becoming grandparents and retiring expect to have a higher standard of living than the economy is able to support. Consequently, more of their resources may be directed toward maintaining an expected standard of living, and therefore fewer resources will be available for their grandchildren. In addition, longevity has been extended for older adults. The possible subsequent economic requirement for long-term medical care can tap resources grandparents might otherwise have used to support their younger family members. Another consideration is that newly developed technological entertainment in the form of the Internet, video games, and television all capture the attention and time of youngsters. Grandparents are often challenged to compete with these diverse technological attractions for their grandchildren’s attention. Grandchildren as young toddlers are computer active. As a result, grandparents have been encouraged to learn to surf the Internet and play video games so they can engage with their grandchildren. Grandparents have learned to use e-mail as a tool to improve contact and communication with their grandchildren. In general, a mutual lack of appreciation for the different things that the grandchild and the grandparent consider to be important could result in distancing the child from the grandparent. The grandchild might experience the grandparent as nonsympathetic to the child’s perspective and also might not be responsive to the grandparent’s concerns.
Surrogate Parenting By Grandparents
Grandparent status was traditionally thought of as a much awaited privilege that generally occurred later in life. Today, the grandparent status is no longer relegated to late life but may occur more frequently at earlier times in one’s life cycle. In addition, the grandparental role may merge with the parental role owing to a set of unfortunate circumstances. Grandparents attain surrogate parental status for a variety of reasons that might include parental death, drug use, AIDS-related illness, incarceration, or the termination of parental rights (often resulting from neglect and abuse). Unlike grandparents who develop traditional relationships with their grandchildren, grandparents who act as surrogate parents have the added responsibilities that accompany the parental role.
Grandparent caregivers not only attend to the child’s daily care, they are also responsible for the intellectual and emotional development of their grandchildren. Often, the child’s needs require grandparents to accompany him or her to weekly appointments with medical, mental health, and school professionals. In other words, attending to the child’s well-being is an active, rather than a passive, endeavor for these grandparents. Intergenerational differences may make it difficult for grandparents to negotiate issues pertaining to the child’s development, including academic life and peer interactions. For grandparent caregivers, a traditional perspective of grandparenting is simply unattainable because the circumstances resulting in caregiving dictate otherwise. Moreover, these caregiving situations tend to be a long-term commitment, at times requiring as long as 5 years.
The number of grandparents who are currently providing primary care for their grandchildren is on the rise. During the past three decades, the number of grandchildren being raised by their grandparents has increased by more than 1 million, from 2.2 million (1970) to 3.9 million (1997). More recent census reports estimate the number of households with coresident grandparents and children younger than 18 is 5.8 million (2000). About 2.4 million of these households constitute grandparents serving as the primary caregiver for their grandchildren. Most of these grandparent caregivers were younger than 60 years old.
Although there are a significant number of white (non-Hispanic) grandparents raising their grandchildren as surrogate parents, African American and Latino grandparents are disproportionately represented in this group relative to their white counterparts. Although population estimates suggest only 3.6% of individuals age 30 and older coreside with their grandparents, the rates of minority coresident grandparents differ substantiality, relative to their white counterparts. Compared with 2% of the white population, higher numbers of coresident grandparents were found among Asian Americans (6%), Native American and Alaskan Natives (8%), African Americans (8%), Latinos (8%), and Pacific Islanders (10%). Of these coresident grandparents, 35%, 52%, and 56% of Latinos, African Americans, and Alaskan Natives, respectively, were primary caregivers for their grandchildren. Only about 20% of Asian American grandparents were primary caregivers.
For many grandparents, the short-term shock of their unexpected propulsion into the primary caregiving role is less traumatic than their assumption of parental responsibilities for their grandchildren and its long-term impact on their own development. Researchers on family issues characterize the grandparent-grandchild relationship of grandparents who are primary caregivers as significantly different from traditional grandparent-grandchild relationships. They found that parenting responsibilities adversely affect such more typical grandparental developmental milestones as retirement, as well as their social functioning (which include social interactions and leisure activities). Grandparent caregiver studies have found that parenting has a primarily negative and inhibitory effect on grandparents’ lifestyle and on their relationships with friends, family, and spouses.
During the past decade, researchers have steadily increased the amount of available information on grandparent caregiving. The grandparent caregiver role is complex, and researchers have evidenced both costs and benefits associated with this type of grandparenting. In many ways, the relationship is thought to be deleterious to grandparent’s well-being. Among African American grandparents, stresses from caregiving result in heightened physical ailments, alcoholism, smoking, depression, and anxiety. Latino grandparent caregivers are also predisposed to experience depressive symptomatology. Custodial grandparents also experience predominant feelings of guilt, self-blame, obligation, and a sense of betrayal. Generally, grandparent caregivers’ mental and physical health is poorer relative to their noncaregiver counterparts. Specific areas of stress for grandparent caregivers include social isolation; difficulties negotiating the legal, financial, and educational systems; family conflicts; and limited resources.
Health risks for grandparent caregivers are notable and marked by poor health care behaviors. Grandparents are likely to suffer from hypertension, insomnia, and alcohol and cigarette consumption. Moreover, grandparents who care for their grandchildren as well as their elderly parents were particularly vulnerable to the negative physical and emotional effects of stress. However, the stress of parenting can be mediated by informal supports from friends and family members. One must consider that, for previous studies, conclusions drawn may only emphasize the cost or burden associated with the grandparent caregiving experience. Undoubtedly, for the grandparent caregiver, the task of caring for one’s grandchild may seem emotionally overwhelming and at times physically daunting. The stresses associated with caregiving tend to exacerbate existing medical conditions and allow grandparents little private time. However, despite these problems associated with caregiving, the parenting experience could prove gratifying and maybe even pleasurable for some grandparents.
Most research has focused primarily on the difficulties of the grandparent caregiver experience, and few have discussed the benefits. As such, it is important to note that some grandparent caregivers report they experience a greater purpose for living. In addition, grandparents report rewards such as a chance to raise a child differently, to nurture family relationships, to continue family histories, and to receive love and companionship from their grandchild.
Undoubtedly, demographic changes due to extended life span have increased the likelihood of adults spending a large portion of their lives in the grandparenting role. Moreover, increased longevity increases the number of multigenerational family structures. Families diversified by sociocultural influences, including divorce rates, remarriage, and other variations of blended families, have also added to the diversity of the grandparenting experience.
Subsequently, the grandparent role has become more complex, reflecting the changing family structures. Grandparents’ roles have evolved from a more traditional one largely void of parental responsibility to roles that vary in increasing degrees of responsibility for their grandchild. Grandparents are often required to expand their role to include providing a financial base for their children in the case of divorce and other financially stressful situations. In other instances, they assume full caregiving responsibilities for their grandchildren. The influences on the relationship are as diverse as the roles grandparents assume. Grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren hinge on a variety of factors, including the strength of family ties, frequency of contact with grandchildren, gender of the grandparent, kinship position (maternal vs. paternal grandparent), the amount of time spent together, and the degree of acculturation of the grandchildren. All of these factors contribute to the experience of closeness between the grandparent and the grandchild.
Grandparents stand to benefit from relationships with their grandchild by experiencing a greater sense of well-being and morale. In addition to instrumental supports acquired during the child’s early life, grandchildren gain a sense of self and security from their relationship with their grandparents, which extend into their adulthood. Regardless of the dimension, role, or style of grandparenting, the definition of grandparenthood is embodied in the self-choices grandparents make promoting generativity.
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