Creating new roles for grandparents

Grandparents day Is a celebration in search of celebrants. This Sunday, if previous patterns hold true, only about 3 million of America's 60 million grandparents - 5 percent - will receive cards honoring their place in the family. For the other 95 percent, it will be just another Sunday.

And no wonder. In many respects the observance is redundant, since grandparents are included in Mother's Day and Father's Day. Who, the reasoning goes, needs another artificially created holiday?

But one grandmother, Lillian Carson, sees a larger purpose for the event. Skip the guilt-inducing pressure to spend money on cards and presents, she says. Concentrate on family connections instead. She encourages families to mark the day by reaching out to grandparents, "asking them to tell some of their stories to the grandchildren." By providing continuity, grandparents show children that they belong to "something greater than themselves, to a family that has a history and roots." Giving Grandparents Day that kind of thrust, she says, could make it meaningful.

Preserving roots and sharing stories may become more important than ever as grandparents' lives, like everyone else's, change dramatically.

Dr. Carson, author of "The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference," calls today's grandparents "pioneers." Speaking from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., she sums up the changes: "We're younger, due to health and lifestyle, and we're older, because we're living longer. We're on the go more. More grandparents are in the work force. We invent second careers, or we're maybe still in our first career. There's more travel, so there's much more mobility." Many also move to the Sun Belt.

A new survey of older Americans, released last week, reflects these changing patterns. Called "The New Face of Retirement," it finds that more than 40 percent of nonretired Americans between the ages of 50 and 75 plan to work either full or part time after retiring from their primary job. An equal number already volunteer or plan to. The study was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for Civic Ventures, a nonprofit organization in California.

This new activism promises a more vital role for the older generation. But it also raises a question: If grandparents find themselves facing the same time squeeze their adult children do, where will the next generation of nurturers come from? Who will have unhurried moments to cuddle a toddler, read - and reread - favorite books to a preschooler, tell family stories, or help a teenager navigate the shoals of adolescence?

Carson, the grandmother of 10, emphasizes the importance of careers and activities. But she also underscores the need to make grandparenting "a very clear priority."

The role also needs updated models. As grandparents face new challenges, she says, models from the past no longer serve them well. Bye-bye, Norman Rockwell stereotypes.

Among those challenges: more long-distance grandchildren ("a very different way of grandparenting"). More divorce, single parents, and blended families ("grandparents are truly not ready for all that"). More grandparents - 3.4 million - raising grandchildren, serving as parents instead of grandparents.

But whatever the difficulties, the role benefits everyone. "There's a lot in it for the grandparent," Carson says. "When we're involved with young people, from the little ones to older teens and young adult grandchildren, we're doing our natural task, which is to nurture the next generations. When we see the world through a child's eyes, it's very nurturing for us."

She adds, "If we as grandparents are living our lives with enthusiasm each day and taking care of ourselves, we can make the future look very positive for our children and grandchildren. We have an important job to do. We must do it."

What a gift to any family. And what a perfect reason for a grateful, noncommercial remembrance of grandparents everywhere on Sunday.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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