Creating healthy and happy relationships between generations

Creating healthy relationships between generations

There’s nothing sweeter than a grandchild’s chocolate-covered hug, smoochy kisses or that glorious feeling as they slip their sticky little fingers into yours for a stroll hand-in-hand to the park.

Grandparents bring with them a rich and vibrant tapestry of life and living. They are the custodians of the family’s history, the head of the family tribe. Grandparents are teachers, mentors and role models, unsung heroes who wipe runny noses and kiss away tears.

Social psychologist, Associate Professor Evonne Miller from Queensland University of Technology, says grandparents are a wonderful resource that needs to be cherished. “Grandparents are there to take the slow walk home after school, stopping at the playground, not rushing back because chores need to be done,” she says. “When their children become parents themselves, grandparents can also be that comforting voice to them, that soft shoulder to lean against when they need it.”

There’s no denying family relationships can be complicated, but creating healthy, happy relationships between the generations begins with respect, support and encouragement.

Grandparents pick up kids from school, babysit while mums and dads have date night and often care for the kids while parents work. Many are often still juggling paid work and coping with their own personal struggles.

Anne McLeish, director of Grandparents Australia, says grandparents offer support on a multitude of levels. “They are another layer to the family unit. Grandparents bring a sense of belonging and connectedness,” she says. According to McLeish, grandparents are becoming progressively more important in families. “With increasing pressure on families these days, grandparents can be an invaluable support,” she adds.

Grandparents are good for your health

When the older generation connects to the younger one, there are many benefits for the whole family. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Gerontological Society, spending time with grandchildren improves a grandparent’s mental health. It also benefits grandchildren in the long term. A 19-year study by Boston College researchers showed emotionally close ties between grandparents and their grown-up children reduced depression in both groups.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then to learn that caring for grandkids also helps grandparents to live longer. In 2017, researchers from Germany, Switzerland and Australia gathered two decades worth of data to find out if caring for others impacted on life expectancy. Half of the grandparents who looked after their grandchildren lived about five years longer than those who didn’t.

Dr David Coall from Edith Cowan University, who was involved in other research, noted that, conversely, there can be some negative health impacts for those who cared full-time for their grandchildren.

Bridging the gap

Not all grandparent-grandchild relationships are close, however. If there has been a rift or complicated relationship between the grandparents and their grown-up children, that can flow on to the next generation. A divorce will also have a ripple effect on grandparent-grandchild relationships.

There’s no denying family relationships can be complicated, but creating healthy happy relationships between the generations begins with respect, support and encouragement.

Being a grandparent is a beautiful opportunity to nurture and nourish little minds and hearts. Be thankful that grandparents are there for you and your children.

Learn to forgive past hurts and grudges. Letting go allows you to heal, to move forward and have more rewarding relationships with others who matter to you. Understand that everyone wants to be loved and nurtured, even if they don’t realise it themselves.

The synchronicity of the universe and all that lies within it is uniquely purposeful and powerful. You are meant to be with the family you have. You are meant to learn the life lessons that being part of that family will bestow on you.

Contemporary grandparenting

The role of grandparents in the family group is evolving and changing. With more women delaying childbirth until their late thirties and even forties, could grandparents eventually become a bit like the koala — a cuddly, rare and beautiful creature that’s becoming endangered?

Fortunately, with advances in technology and healthcare, people are living longer. However, increased age can bring with it health and mobility issues and older grandparents can struggle to keep up with their young charges.

Contemporary grandparenting has changed, too, as family dynamics have undergone changes. McLeish says there are more single-parent families and more same-sex parents. “Families are becoming increasingly more complex in their profile but, regardless of the family group, people within that group value and appreciate the sense of connectedness that comes from multiple generations supporting each other,” she says.

Changes in retirement age have also had an impact. In previous generations grandparents in their early sixties could care for grandkids when they left work. New government legislation has seen age pension eligibility bumped to 67 years if you were born after January 1, 1957. There has also been speculation that the age eligibility could be raised to 70 years.

Changes in childcare benefit can also make caring for grandchildren more challenging. From July 2, 2018, the Child Care Benefit and the Child Care Rebate were abolished and replaced with a Child Care Subsidy — and for the first time became means tested. Some families will be better off but others will find it difficult to afford childcare.

McLeish says the government also withdrew a small subsidy for grandparents who wanted to provide childcare. “Poorer families who relied on that are going to struggle,” says McLeish. “If you are a pensioner and want to have a hands-on role in supporting your family, why can’t the government subsidise that?”

Grandparenting from afar

Even if grandparents live far away and can’t take part in day-to-day grandparenting, with the global proliferation of smart devices, staying in touch is becoming easier. Generations can share important news, photos and videos via Facebook, Instagram or any number of social networks. A Skype session with the grandkids can connect the generations, even when grandparents can’t be there. They can read a bedtime story or show a budding little master chef grandchild how to make chocolate crackles.

More competitive pricing of airfares has also meant it need not be so long between visits. And if you don’t have a grandparent nearby, there are now online organisations that can help you to find a surrogate. Cate Kloos, founder of Find a Grandparent, developed the not-for-profit concept because her own parents live in Germany.

“As a child I spent a lot of time with my grandma. We were close and I wanted my own children to share that same experience,” says Kloos. “It also helps grandparents who might be missing their own grandchildren, who are lonely or socially isolated.”

According to Kloos, there’s a huge demand for the service. “There are lots of families registered — at the moment we really can’t keep up,” she says.

Under the one roof

In some countries, such as Singapore and Korea, often multi-generations of families live together. And, while it isn’t common practice in Australia, Associate Professor Miller says there are clear benefits in having three generations under one roof.

“I’m a great advocate for intergenerational living,” she says. “If you’re going to enlist the services of an au pair, why not have a more vibrant intergenerational household where everyone can support each other?”

Research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which involved 8000 Australian children, showed co-housing had other benefits. AIFS senior researcher Dr Jennifer Baxter says the study indicated that co-resident grandparents were providing support to children and parents, particularly assistance with housing or financial support for a period of time. “For some families, it appears that living with grandparents meant parents could avoid certain financial hardships through sharing of resources,” she says.

According to Dr Baxter, about half the children in the study were cared for by a grandparent one day a week and one-quarter were cared for two days a week.

Setting boundaries

If grandparents are caring for their grandkids, for things to run smoothly, communication, understanding, empathy and a mutually acceptable arrangement are requirements.

Before grandparents agree to care for grandchildren on a regular basis, it’s vital to do some soul searching; to think about their own needs and to be honest about how they really feel about baby wrangling. It might be decades since they’ve changed a nappy, or mobility issues might leave a grandparent wondering how on earth they’ll keep up with a boisterous toddler.

Associate Professor Miller says grandparents shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no or putting their own needs first. “Grandparents need to achieve their own dreams and aspirations. Many have worked for a long time and might not have had the chance to do what they wanted, whether that’s becoming an artist or backpacking around Europe,” she says.

If grandparents want to offer care that’s not just on an ad hoc basis, everyone needs to get together and have an honest dialogue about their expectations. McLeish says the last thing you’d want as a parent is for your own parents to feel angry, resentful and undervalued.

“Nobody wants to be sitting round the table with a lawyer; but equally, you don’t want your loving offer of two afternoons a week turning into much, much more, unless you’re willing,” she says. “We strongly advise families to have a meeting over a cup of tea or glass of wine so everyone has the same understanding to start with.”

If grandparents are to care for their grandkids, it’s also important that their efforts are appreciated so they continue to feel like a valued family member. Support organisations such as Grandparents Australia encourage the use of a barter system. So, if grandparents look after the kids for a day, their children can support them by doing something that would be helpful for them, like mowing their lawn, for example.

Once you’ve established a routine and everyone is happy, check in from time to time. Reflecting back and seeing how it’s working out is helpful in ensuring that everyone’s needs are being met.

It’s OK to bend the rules … a little

What was childhood with your grandparents like? For this writer, it was all about pink lemonade icy poles, trying to braid Granddad’s hair while he watched the footy and making chocolate-chip cookies with Grandma (while sneakily feeding cookie dough to Sooty the dog). Many parents have their own cherished memories of time spent with their grandparents and it was probably a very different kind of relationship from the one shared with parents.

Grandparents need to always be conscious that they aren’t the parents, so it’s not their job to discipline and they do need to respect the parents’ wishes. While it’s probably not OK to give your grandchild child sugary treats before dinner, letting them stay up half an hour later for a snuggle and favourite bedtime story probably might be.

Parents, on the other hand, need to remember to go gently with their own parents. If your parent crosses a boundary you have the right to address it, but it’s important to pick your battles and do so with kindness and love.

Parents and grandparents will have different ways of doing things and they won’t always agree. Parents should try to understand and respect the fact that their parents raised them and they obviously did OK because you lived to tell the tale.

There’s also a pretty good chance your parents probably thought about grandkids long before you and your partner decided to start a family. Being a grandparent is a beautiful opportunity to nurture and nourish little minds and hearts. Be thankful that grandparents are there for you and your children. Cherish their wisdom and hugs, be grateful for the times they stepped up to care for your sick child so you could work, or baked cupcakes for the school fete when you didn’t have the energy to get off the couch.

Grandparents are the living keepers of the family stories and traditions. They’re nurturers who offer unconditional love and acceptance. They provide compassion, joy, tolerance and love, bringing comfort, cuddles and wisdom.

While our children are the custodians of the future, our children’s grandparents are the protectors of the past. Treasure them.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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