Most grandparenting research looks at grandparents who live with their grandchildren or the frail elderly who live in long-term care or assisted settings. That misses most of the 64 million-plus grandparents, including a large group of "midlife"
About 60 percent of all adults 60 and older are grandparents, said Wendy D. Manning, who with colleagues analyzed the most recent nationally representative data to reach the estimate of 64 million — an undercount, she noted, because it doesn't include all those living in institutional settings.
It means about 60 percent of all adults 50 and older are grandparents, including 80 percent of widowed persons and 13 percent of never-marrieds in that age bracket. The ranks of grandparents swelled by 50 percent in just 25 years, said Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green.
Who are the grandparents? The researchers found that 40 percent of "midlife" people, those age 40 to 64, are grandparents. Grandparents of all ages are living longer, buoyed by medical advances and healthier habits.
Only 10 percent of grandparents live with grandchildren, Manning said. The vast majority who do so live in a three-generation household that includes a parent. Just 4 percent of grandparents actually raise their grandchildren. If you flip it, and tell the story from the perspective of children, 7.4 percent of kids live with a grandparent — a 70-year high. Almost a third of those have no parent in the home.
And that's not such a bad thing, experts say.
"When high-achieving kids talk about who the influences in their lives have been, grandparents are among the first three mentioned," said Vern Bengtson, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in gerontology.
Were one to look for grandparents, the title certainly belongs to the retired couple down the street, but it's also worn proudly by co-workers and jogging buddies. They're everywhere.
Experts say younger grandparents who are baby boomers are tackling the job the same way boomers have done everything else: The way they want to as well differently than it's traditionally been done.
"Baby boomers changed everything their whole lives, so of course they are changing grandparenting, too," said Amy Goyer, who credits her relationships with her own grandparents for drawing her to a job as a family and grandparenting expert for AARP.
When AARP surveyed grandparents two years ago, it found people who are "incredibly active, still working, traveling a great deal and taking advantage of things like tech," Goyer said. "They struggle with work-life balance, too."
Manning noted that 28 percent of today's grandparents are in second or higher-order marriages because of divorce or a spouse's death, so many of them are both grandparents and step-grandparents: "All the complexity you think about earlier in the life course occurs for grandparents, too," Manning said.
Bengtson has four grandkids ages 6 to 10. He also specializes in aging and spent 35 years following the same 350 families as a research professor of gerontology and sociology at the Roybal Institute on Aging in the School of Social Work at USC. He's seen how generations interact and has been wowed by the influence grandparents have on their grandchildren, he said.
Society doesn't pay much attention to or give much credit to grandparents, in his well-studied view. They could make a greater impact on education by helping in classrooms, but are often not invited. They already have "more intergenerational influence on achievement than we are aware of," he said.
"We think of grandparents as being nice, but not very important in American society. Yet about one-third of the grandchildren in our sample shared the same faith," he said.
Though parental influence is largely responsible, "I have seen rather dramatic examples of grandparent influence that is independent and primary," he added.
He offers the words of a young woman who told him, "My grandfather and I would sit there in the pew on Sunday and he would always wear this red carnation. Same, Sunday after Sunday and I felt so secure. That was the only thing that was secure in my life at the time."
Her grandfather was not raising her, but her parents were divorced and her mother battled mental health problems. Everything was chaotic in her life, Bengtson said, but she grew up to be a devout Catholic, just like her Grandpa Leo. Religion is one of many realms where grandparents often have tremendous impact.
"I would assert that grandparents are more important in the lives of grandchildren today than at any other point in history," said Bengtson, who noted that longer, healthier lives mean much more time with grandchildren than generations past had. The relationship often lasts well into the grandchild's adulthood.
Not so far away
Opportunities for interaction are no longer challenged as in the past by distance or cost.
When Amy Goyer was little, her family had to drive many hours and miles to visit her grandparents.
Now she and Bengtson cite as a big change something Loreen Sjoblom takes for granted as an active grandmother in her early 60s: Technology and how simple it is to travel. The Utah grandma and her husband, Ron, have four grandchildren who live a couple of states away in San Diego, California, but the grandparents or their grandkids make the trip so they see each other at least a couple of times a year. In between, they Skype, share photos through social media and email and call each other.
Even if they don't live in the same neighborhood, the two generations can interact easily through technology "in real casual ways that were not possible a generation or two ago," said Bengtson. "When I was in college, if I wanted to talk to my grandparents on the phone, it cost a fortune because long distance was so high. Today, the cost is insignificant. You can email a photo or an 'I love you.'"
His research documents a bond that is "absolutely unique," because grandparents who aren't raising their children don't have to worry about enforcing correct behavior all the time or a host of other things that are part of raising kids.
"Interaction can be more loving, affirming, plain fun," he said. "That's unconditional love and kids just thrive under episodes of unconditional love."
That's exactly how Earl Tenney sees it. He coached his sons' Little League teams when they were young and, decades later, the teams his grandkids played on: "I love doing it," said Tenney.
Grandparents represent one of America's "largest and most underutilized natural resources," Bengtson said. "They are healthier today than ever before, more vital and they have more financial resources than grandparents did in previous generations."
The AARP survey found that, as well. Many grandparents said they like to give their grandchildren cultural experiences and take them on trips. Some 53 percent said they help pay education costs for the grands: "These are substantive contributions to grandkids," Goyer said.
The surveyed grandparents desired to share family history, teach grandchildren things they felt were important and to love unconditionally, Goyer said.
She learned one of her most important life lessons from her grandmother.
When she was in her 20s, she had gone to visit the woman and was emotionally unpacking a recent heartbreak, a relationship that had fallen apart, as she recalled. She was distraught and asked her grandmother why such things happen, really believing time must have given the older women all the answers that so plague youth: "She said, 'I don't know. There are a lot of things I don't know and I will never understand,'" Goyer said.
It wasn't helpful to Goyer's immediate heartache, but it was certainly valuable.
"I felt pressure to get to a certain age where I'd know everything," said Goyer. "She freed me from that and taught me life is a lifelong growing experience. We are all constantly learning and growing. That was an incredible gift."
The conversations grandparents and their grandchildren share are not all playful and certainly not trivial. The AARP survey found at least half of grandparents discuss very serious topics with grandkids, including sex, drugs, underage drinking, morality and dating.
By the numbers, 78 percent talk to them about morals and values, 73 percent discuss personal safety, 72 chime in on school and career plans and 66 percent on religion/spirituality.
The vast majority of the grandparents, 89 percent, know they are important to the kids and two-thirds felt they did an above-average job as grandparents. Just what is that job? "Spoil them," said 36 percent, followed by teach family history (28 percent) and "give treats" (26 percent).
Grandfathers are the mostly likely to see a calling to spoil the kids. When the guys are with their grandchildren, they all watch TV (71 percent), play physical games (63 percent) and go on outings (56 percent).
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