Grandparents go the extra miles to live near their kids

Like many couples, Mary Jane and Kevin Beebe did not know exactly where they wanted to spend their retirement. But one thing was certain: Grandchildren would be a priority. So when their granddaughter was born last year, they moved from Toms River, N.J., to Pasadena, Calif., to be near her.

"I wanted to be part of a grandchild's life, just as my husband's parents were to our children," Mrs. Beebe says. One of her brothers and his wife moved from New Jersey to Oregon to live close to a granddaughter. Another brother and sister-in-law settled in Vermont, where they have two grandchildren.

No statistics track this kind of informal migration. But anecdotal evidence suggests it is increasing.

"The trend we're seeing definitely is that grandparents want to be close to their grandkids, even if it takes them from the sun and moves them back to wherever they came from or to wherever their grandchildren are," says Allan Zullo, co-author of "A Boomer's Guide to Grandparenting."

In a 2005 Del Webb survey of baby boomers, 42 percent of respondents who plan to move in retirement say it is extremely important to be closer to family. Nearly half say that moving within three hours of family is an important consideration.

"We're certainly aware that grandchildren play a factor in where people will live in their retirement," says Caryn Klebba of Pulte Homes, a nationwide homebuilder based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Retirement communities are being built in the "frost belt" for retirees who want to live near their families.

Arthur Kornhaber, president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, traces the evolution of the trend. In the 1960s and 1970s, he says, "A nation of elders went off to pursue retirement. A lot of family members also left for greener pastures economically. We weren't thinking about the emotional and spiritual implications of the price we're really paying for geographic mobility or retirement."

Today, Dr. Kornhaber says, "People are starting to look at things in a more communal way than they did in the past, when we were promoting autonomy and independence."

For the Beebes, that communal approach is working well. Three days a week, they care for 20-month-old Isabella while their daughter and son-in-law, Elaine and Mark Lapriore, work. On weekends, the two families enjoy activities such as the zoo and the farmers' market. They eat dinner together monthly.

Like other families living near each other, they make a point to create separate lives beyond the grandchildren. Mrs. Beebe, a horticulturalist, volunteers at a botanical garden.

"My parents are very good about space," Mrs. Lapriore says. "If you have smothering parents ... that could be a problem."

Independence is an issue on the mind of another transplanted grandmother, Sandra Gasbarro. She moved from Providence, R.I., to Lexington, Mass., to be near her three-year-old granddaughter.

When she was house-hunting, Mrs. Gasbarro, a widow, told her daughter, "I'm not going to be in your backyard, and I don't want you in my backyard." She adds, "I didn't want to interfere with their life, but I wanted to be here if they needed me, and so I can enjoy Talia. I have to establish my own life. I'm not an addendum on their life. I don't want Manya to feel responsible for me. I told her, 'I am not your responsibility.' "

Manya Chait, Gasbarro's daughter, acknowledges that the move was a "huge change" for her mother. "She's been very concerned that I will wonder, 'Does she have enough friends? Does she have enough to do?' "

So far the answer is yes. Every morning Gasbarro enjoys working out at a fitness center and socializing with other women there. She has also applied to volunteer at a clinic, as she did in Providence.

Mrs. Chait, whose mother-in-law also lives locally, outlines the rules they have established. "Family can't just stop by. They must call first. And we have family-free weekends, when family don't call or stop by."

This promotes good relationships, she finds. "The last thing we want to do is offend our mothers when they're trying to do something nice. If they understand the boundaries ahead of time, they don't feel offended or rejected."

Among those who move, no one minimizes the adjustments that are necessary in leaving familiar settings.

Philip and Alice Shabecoff moved from Chevy Chase, Md., to suburban Boston eight years ago to be near their grandchildren, now ages 10 and 14. "It's just been total joy," Mrs. Shabecoff says. But "total joy" is not how they describe Boston winters. Nor does it apply to saying goodbye to longtime friends. "It's hard to establish a new circle of friends if you don't have business or young children as the glue," she says.

Yet they have developed a small but close circle of friends. Their daughter has also been generous in sharing her friends. "Through her, we've made some intergenerational friends, which is very good as you get older," Shabecoff says. Then there's childrearing. "It's a little hard to be as hands-off as grandparents are supposed to be," Shabecoff says. To which her husband adds, "Our daughter likes us to be hands-on."

Mrs. Beebe underscores the need for communication, "The honesty of speaking up diplomatically is important." Retirement experts also emphasize that the grandparents' move needs the support of their adult child's spouse.

Not all grandparents seeking closer family ties have to move. "Some families are moving to where Grandpa and Grandma are," author Zullo says. Other families add on a grandparents' suite for seasonal use. Some parents help their children buy a bigger house so they can use the guest room and visit more often.

For those who do move, the advantage of family ties often outweighs the disadvantages.

Speaking of the transition from the East Coast to California, Mr. Beebe says, "It's a very different culture - the weather, the ethnic mix. And the cost of living is a lot higher. It's not where I would have picked, but we didn't pick it." Still, he says, "I wouldn't change it. This has been a wonderful experience, being part of Isabella's life."

His daughter agrees, "There aren't enough superlatives as to how wonderful this has been for me," she says. "I've gotten close to my parents all over again after a decade of living far away, and my husband has gotten close to them as well. Every time my husband and I mention to anybody what my parents have done - move across the country to be grandparents - everybody tells us how lucky we are."

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