The Role of Great-Grandparents

Demographers Describe the Coming Boom

Eye to Eye with Great-Grandfather
Great-grandparents may have unique perspectives to share. jayneboo shropshire / Getty Images

If you are a Boomer like me, chances are that you never knew your great-grandparents, but that you will know your great-grandchildren.

Thanks to our longer, healthier life spans, more of us will live to be great-grandparents. One Census Bureau official, quoted in a New York Times piece, said we are in the middle of a great-grandparent boom. The official estimated that by 2030, most 8-year-olds will have at least one living great-grandparent.

Some predict that the boom will not last. Most Boomers had their children young, and even their children became parents fairly young. With today's trend of delayed childbirth pushing back the age of becoming a grandparent, the likelihood of living long enough to become a great-grandparent becomes less likely. So those of us who are Boomer grandparents are living in a kind of sweet spot. 

What's Different About Being a Great

The role of a great-grandparent is similar to the grandparenting role with a couple of subtle differences. Some great-grandparents reprise their grandparenting roles almost exactly. I have heard from great-grandparents who provide child care for their great-grandchildren and travel with them. I've also known great-grandparents who are raising their great-grandchildren.

More commonly, however, great-grandparents are a bit less involved than they were as grandparents.  A gerontologist quoted in the Times article states that people tend to be more highly invested in generations that are closest to their own, so individuals usually are more invested in grandchildren than in great-grandchildren, and most invested in their own children.

Another possible barrier is that great-grandparents may have difficulty relating to the way their great-grandchildren are growing up, especially when it comes to technology. We were amazed by our pocket-sized transistor radios, even though they had terrible sound quality. Our grandchildren use their pocket-sized devices to listen to music, watch movies, send messages, play games and do a host of other activities that we never even dreamed of.

 

Advantages of Being a Great

Still, most great-grandparents have the advantage of being done with their careers and thus free to be with their great-grandchildren, as long as they live nearby and remain fairly healthy. They can pass on family stories and add one more dimension to family life. Often they are regarded with great respect and tenderness, especially by the young members of the family. A few great-grandparents live with family members in a multigenerational home, a situation that offers many advantages and a few challenges, too.

Advice for Greats

The great distance in years between great-grandparents and their great-grandchildren opens up a host of possibilities. 

No one expects a great-grandparent to be on the cutting edge. When you know something about a brand new app, musician, TV show or trend, you will be greeted with amazement. You may even be considered a "cool" great-grandparent. By no means should you try to keep up with everything, but if you can share a few of the interests of the younger generation, you will win kudos all around.

On the other hand, you can expect that your great-grandchildren won't be fully cognizant of exactly when your life span took place, especially when they are younger.

They may think that you lived in horse-and-buggy days. At any rate, try not to be long-winded, but do occasionally remind the great-grandchildren, when they are old enough, of some of the advances that you have seen and the historical occasions that you have lived through. You may not have gone to Woodstock, but if you saw Sputnik fly over, or if you remember the first television you ever saw, the great-grandchildren should hear about it. 

If you're a boomer, make the most of living in the golden age of great-grandparents!