Once an image is set, it is hard to shift, even if it is untrue.The traditional image of grandparents (such as Little Red Riding Hood’s granny) is of old folks, well past their prime, wrinkled and white-haired. The image is not a bad one; they tend to be seen as caring and concerned, offering a listening ear and dispensing wisdom and warmth, but not doing very much, except perhaps offering a few goodies to their grandchildren.
Sixty years ago, the wrinkles and grey hair might have been true, as life was still physically tough for many people, whether at work or in running households, and people were often worn out by hard grafting and occupational diseases. There was fetching and carrying, in the absence of cars. There was more dirt, with smog and coal fires, with their soot and ash, and a lot more dusting, washing, cleaning and scrubbing to be done. The image of grandparents was still fairly accurate.
Now, however, in developed countries, better health care, an easier lifestyle, consequent better health and greater longevity have changed things. People may become grandparents typically in their fifties when they still have thirty years of life ahead of them. They look younger than they used to sixty years ago. They are fitter. They are often still in full-time jobs, or starting second careers. They may be well up to date with a lot of the latest electronic gadgetry. The traditional image described above is a million miles from the reality.
As for the grandchildren, it means that the grandparents can offer different things. They may still be into sport, able to play active games, and go walking, for example – not sit in a chair and beam, as in the traditional image. Many grandparents play important roles in supporting parents who are in work, caring for the children on a respite basis, or part-time, or in some cases full-time. If the parents are gong through difficult times or are splitting up, the grandparents can sometimes play key roles in offering stability and support. Instead of leaving money to their children, it may be the grandchildren who are helped through schooling or university or with house purchase.
Then there is the role of the great-grandparents. With greater longevity, there are more of them around than ever before. Because they are in their eighties or thereabouts, they probably fit the traditional grandparents’ image rather better than the grandparents.
We have not yet come across any research into the part which they play in families. (Any references from readers will be welcome.) The role of grandparents is quite distinct from that of parents, but is the role of great-grandparents different from that of grandparents – apart from being older and probably less fit? We doubt it, but would be interested to hear from readers about their experiences.
The effect of smaller nuclear families and longevity is that families are probably strung out more now over the generations than ever before. What is more, in many developed countries there has been no recent catastrophe such as the First World War or the Spanish Flu to wipe out whole generations, and it may be the first time in history that this pattern of four-generation families has become apparent.
Of course, there are sadly countries in the world where there has been genocide, or areas where natural disasters have wiped out thousands, or continents where HIV/AIDS has not been properly addressed, or regimes such as Zimbabwe where bad government has impoverished the people to the point of starvation. In these countries there is a long way to go before the questions raised above are relevant.
But with good economics, good education, good health care and peace, it would be possible during this century for the children of every country to enjoy having grandparents – and great grandparents – around. And that would be a Good Thing.