September 9 (the first Sunday after Labor Day) is national Grandparents Day, officially established in 1979 by President Carter, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Jacob Reingold of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, New York, and the passion and persuasive persistence of Marian McQuade of Oak Hill, West Virginia.
When I first heard about the holiday, I suspected a greeting card company conspiracy, but that’s not the case. In fact, it was a grassroots movement, spearheaded by Marian McQuade, who was committed to its not being commercialized. A mother of fifteen and a grandmother, great, and great-great grandmother of 54 (43 grands, 10 greats, and one great-great grandchild), Marian’s love of “oldsters,” as she called them, began with her own grandmother who, after working all day on the farm, would walk to town in the evening to visit her older neighbors. Marian often went along, and it was these neighborly conversations that instilled her lifelong love and respect – and later her advocacy – of older people.
Marian envisioned Grandparents Day as a reciprocal intergenerational holiday for honoring grandparents and for providing an opportunity for elders to express love for their children’s children. The third and broader purpose of the observance is to help children be aware of the strength and guidance that older people, in general, have to offer.
Like so many other people, some of my most cherished childhood memories involve my grandparents – “helping” Grandma scrub clothes on her washboard and enjoying the sounds that emanated from the pulley and the clothes line as she hung the wash out to dry; being awed by the towering rows of corn and beans while following Grandpa “Boogie” as he “inspected” his garden; playing with my sister and cousins on the seemingly endless backdoor staircase and in the bamboo forest on the east side of their backyard; and feeling safe and loved in the huge guest bed at night when Grandma covered us with handmade quilts, sang us a lullaby, and wished us “sweet dreams.”
The natural affinity between older adults and young children has been observed in traditional cultures around the world, and research confirms that a bond between children of all ages and their grandparents has positive effects for both generations. Some studies also reveal that many of these same benefits apply to close, consistent relationships between children and older adults who are not blood relatives.
Benefits to Children
Grandparents are frequently sources of unconditional love and emotional support for children, simply by being present and enjoying them, as well as by listening and offering counsel when they are dealing with something difficult. Decades of life experience and learning tend to give older adults a breadth and depth of perspective and a capacity to meet challenges with equanimity that children find comforting and encouraging when facing their own difficulties. The presence of a loving grandparent in a child’s life is associated with higher self-esteem, emotional resilience, and enhanced social skills (including the ability understand another’s perspective and to withstand peer pressure.)
Because they usually have fewer demands on their time than parents – especially working ones – grandparents are available to play with grandchildren, to teach them skills, and to share experiences they might not have otherwise. And educator and author Susan Bosak points out in her book, How To Build the Grandma Connection, the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that grandparents impart to children tend to stay with them throughout life, more than those they acquire elsewhere.
Grandparents are also important sources of information about family traditions and values, as well as ancestral stories that give children a better sense of whom and where they come from and to whom they belong.
Benefits to Older Adults
Close relationships between older adults and their grandchildren are mutually beneficial. They offer both age groups an experience of unconditional love and can be a buffer against depression for both as well. In addition, they have been shown to have a positive effect on older adults’ social connectedness, sense of purpose, and life satisfaction. And an award-winning 2016 study of 500 European grandparents (ages 70-103), found that older adults who spent weekly time with their grandchildren tended to live longer than those who did not. Sonja Hildbrand and her associates also discovered that older adults without grandchildren who gave emotional support to others in their lives survived several years longer than those who did not reach out.
Older adults’ cognitive skills are also enhanced by child-grandparent contact, up to point. In a 2014 study Katherine Burn et al found that older women who spent at least one day a week with grandchildren scored highest on cognitive functioning. However, for those spending five or more days a week providing childcare, both thought-processing speed and working memory were negatively affected. Detrimental effects on physical health have also been noted in grandparents who assume major responsibility for their grandchildren.
Benefits to the Human Family
Since the founding of Grandparents Day in 1979, the importance of intergenerational contact and collaboration has been increasingly recognized. See, for example, UCSD’s Intergenerational Collaborative Initiative and “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future,” a joint proposal by the Stanford Center on Longevity, encore.org, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.