Artful Aging

The Grandma Effect

What do humans, elephants, and whales have in common? Grandmas! Granny, the oldest known orca on record, lived in the coastal waters of Washington until she disappeared in 2016. She was estimated to be between 60 and 80 years old, but a paper published in 1987 suggested she was likely born in 1911, which would mean she lived to 105. As Howard Garrett of the Orca Network told National Geographic, “She was the counselor, the guide, the teacher of traditions.”

Most mammals can reproduce until they die, yet whales, elephants, and humans go through menopause. Studies show that post-menopausal grandmas help ensure the survival and longevity of their own grand-offspring—and even offspring not related to them. Older female elephants and orca whales carry forward social knowledge and secrets on finding food sources. The grandma elephant is clearly the family matriarch. (It’s one thing she doesn’t forget!)

The role of human grandmothers (and grandfathers) is evolving; we are living longer, our children are having children later, and according to the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of U.S. households are multigenerational. Another interesting find by Pew is that 22 percent of American grandparents regularly help with childcare, compared to 46 percent of grandparents in Germany, and 39 percent of grandparents in Italy. Older adults in America have less financial government support than in these European countries and often return to work, which may contribute to some of this discrepancy.

Today’s youth face a high prevalence of bullying, heightened levels of anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol epidemics, and gun violence at their schools. They need the experience and life wisdom grandparents can offer more than ever. Add in the high cost of quality daycare—a struggle for many families across all income groups—and more than ever, a grandparent’s presence is necessary to not only succeed in the world but to survive.

If you don’t live close to your grandchildren, become proficient at using FaceTime or Skype on your computer or smart phone. It’s easy to use and will connect you face-to-face with your grandchildren no matter where they live. Don’t have grandchildren? Grandparents are often “adopted” by non-family members who appreciate the benefits their children receive from older adults who love the opportunity to nurture, mentor, and support them. Elders from the retirement community where I work recently stepped forward to take on the role of grandparenting with high school-age youth. Students sat and listened to wizened adults recall their lives during the Great Depression and war years. History came alive for them, and the students walked away with greater understanding of themselves and courage about facing their own challenges in life.

Many older Americans say the best part of growing old is to have more time with family. In fact, grandparents have taken to the political arena. Grandparents’ Rights of Washington State was formed 11 years ago to help grandparents get legal visitation rights to see their grandchildren. Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill on March 22, 2018, granting relatives (including but not limited to grandparents) the right to seek visitation with a child through the courts. This is just another example of how grandparents are taking ownership of their role and value in a child’s life.

Jane Meyers-Bowen is the Marketing Director at Garden Court Retirement Community.  For more information you can contact her at 425-438-9080.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. My wife of 48 years and I are raising two grandkids. One 13 and one 2. Had to return to work, but the rewards are tremendously worth it!
    Glad to know there are more of us “out there”!

    • Victoria Starr Marshall

      Mike, so wonderful to hear from you. Knowing some of the backstory, I greatly admire your commitment to you grandchildren. I wish you all the best.

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