July 31, 2004


When your kids are just too much, who you gonna call?


Your parents.


I'm not talking about having mom and dad babysit occasionally or housesit during a short crisis. I'm talking about "systemic grandparenting." This is a permanent state of active involvement with your children brought about by your own state of marital breakup, single parenthood, shift work, critical illness or financial hardship. Sometimes, the changes in the grandparent's situation -- such as widowhood or their own late-life failed marriage -- open the door to days of unstinted attention to your children.


One of my patients is a fabric designer and newly widowed grandmother. But her grief has been cut short by being able to play a role in her five-year-old granddaughter's life. This widow is now grateful for every birthday, happy to be in the present, eager to explore senses, religions, cultures.


Dr. Esme Fuller-Thomson, in her study of grandparent caregivers done last year through Berkeley and the University of Toronto, affirms that one in 10 North American families depends on grandparents for the long-term care of their children.

Rarely is there an intact set of grandparents looking after their grandchildren. But that was the case for another of my patients, a teenaged boy. His grandparents took him in because his parents would no longer have him.


This elderly man and woman have endured his ferocious ups and downs. They have told him to be respectful whenever he speaks to them, and have refused to rise to his baiting when he ridiculed their frailty and fogginess.


But they've also unstintingly welcomed his friends to the dinner table. All worth it, from his grandmom's view. Their conversations are lively; spirits rise, tensions defuse.


It isn't all a one-way relationship across the generations. When the grandfather, nearing 80, suffered a stroke, his grandson was there with a strong, if inexperienced, arm. That was when this boy realized for the first time that he had a fear -- that of losing someone dear to him. He has yet to acknowledge and deal with another fear -- of seeming to have lost closeness with his parents. But they are alive, so there is always the opportunity for reconciliation.


That said, it has to be acknow-ledged that the anchor of his self-respect and his assurance has been preserved by the willingness of two aging people to stand in as his parents.


This was certainly the conclusion of the study last year by York University sociology professor Rachel Schlesinger, after interviewing students about the value of their grandparents. More important than providing financial assistance, grandparents were recognized as strong sources of emotional support, serving at times as a buffer between parents and their kids.


While most grandparents relish the simple pleasure of being able to spend time with their grandchildren, I am constantly surprised at the intensity my patients dedicate to ensuring that it is time well spent.


Said one grandmother, a retired nurse, "Parenting wouldn't have given me this much pleasure. That is the magic of having time. I can listen to him expound on novel ideas of the world of grownups, his friends and God and marvel how the world is coming together at such a young age. Today, I can talk about my own feelings, laugh about my mistakes, share simple doubts, ask the great questions in a way that eluded me when I was raising his mother."


Such are the gifts of age. We also know that by 2013 the number of North Americans over 65 and the number under 5 will be the same. After that, boomer grandparents will begin to outnumber the youngest. This could well create odd scenarios of competition and vying for the devotion of and time with these same small people.


But to my mind, it will only serve to enhance family ties, revive a sense of family heritage, those critically important qualities we push to the past in the rush to get ahead.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.