Grandparents’ roles see shift over time

Deb Mehr, of the Village of Dunedin, holds her 2-year-old grandson, Cullen, who is getting ready for a nap, as his sister, Keely, 4, shows him a toy at their home in Ocala. Mehr said she helps care for the children every Tuesday and Wednesday and every other Friday.

Whenever her daughter needs her, Sue Sumner is on call.  Sumner’s daughter, Ana Schwaller, is a working, single mother who is doing her best to manage work and family.  But when she can’t get to The Villages Charter School to pick up her daughters, 3-year-old Amelia and 6-year-old Eliana, Schwaller is left asking her mother for assistance. Sumner, of Summerfield, also provides child care for her granddaughters when they are sick or have a day off school. Although she doesn’t help every day, she keeps a flexible schedule, knowing she may be needed on short notice. “It’s great having (the kids),” Sumner said. “I am just helping as much as I can.” As they celebrate National Grandparents Day today, there is a new reality for many grandparents, such as Sumner.

Half of Americans ages 50 to 64 and 80 percent of those 65 and older are grandparents, according to the 2018 U.S. Census data — and they’re often taking on different responsibilities in that role than grandparents in generations past.

There are more blended and expanding families to navigate, more grandparents living further from their grandchildren than in previous decades and more of those who do live close playing an increasingly active role in their grandchildren’s lives.

Although there is still an unquestionable bond between grandparents and their grandchildren, the dynamics of the relationship continue to evolve.

Blending Families

In the U.S., the divorce rate is between 40% and 50%.

Remarriages are common and often include children — and grandchildren — from previous relationships.

In these new relationships, grandparents often find themselves with new step-grandchildren and are learning to navigate the dynamic of a “blended family.”

Vanessa Jensen, head of pediatric psychology at the Cleveland Clinic, said grandparents can serve as an extension of family members who love and care for a child. Having “extra” grandparents benefits the child’s well-being.

“The more people who love your child, the better,” Jensen said. “If they’re reasonably healthy people and reasonable in their approach to how they care for your child, it never hurts to have more people who can care about an individual child or family.”

Jensen said it is important that parents acknowledge the different roles grandparents and parents play and recommends allowing children to do things differently when they’re spending time with their grandparents.

“For a typical grandparent, when a child visits, it can be a great way to experience a different activity,” Jensen said. “If grandma and grandpa live in a different city, if they live on a farm, or if they’re around other cousins, it’s almost like a little mini-vacation. And I often tell parents, ‘Let it be vacation.’”

Michael and Kristin Dailey, of the Village of Duval, have 10 grandchildren, ranging in age from newborn to 21 years old. They are big believers in letting visits be vacations.

Although Kristin is a step-grandmother to all 10, she treats them as if they were her own.

“My wife adores and worships them,” Michael said.

Although going to the pool, driving the golf cart and visiting the town squares in The Villages is fun on its own, the Daileys also keep their grandchildren busy with Camp Villages events and other local trips while they’re visiting.

During a recent visit from their 7-year-old granddaughter, Avery, the Daileys took her to Disney’s Animal Kingdom a few times.

“She is usually here for Camp Villages and loves it, but she missed it, so it was Camp Disney this year,” Kristin said.

The Daileys have been married for 15 years, and Kristin was present for most of their grandchildren’s births.

She said she enjoys the bond she shares with them and the extra joy they bring to her life.

“I bond with the little girls quite a bit,” she said. “My daughter is grown, so now I have an opportunity to have a little girl again, and it is a lot of fun.”

Bridging The Gap

As more Americans move for retirement, maintaining a close relationship with grandchildren can be tough.

Forty-nine percent of grandparents said long distance is a challenge they face when it comes to grandchildren, and 52% have a grandchild who lives 200 or more miles away, according to the AARP 2018 Grandparents Today National Survey.

Many are embracing technology to build closer relationships with their grandchildren from a distance.

According to AARP, grandparents’ use of mainstream technology is high: 73% of all grandparents own a smartphone, and 49% have a tablet. And three out of four grandparents are on at least one type of social media, with 65% using Facebook and one-third using Skype.

About 35% of grandparents said they use those social media platforms to communicate with family at least weekly.

Village Del Mar residents Fred and Josephine Mason use a number of devices to keep in touch with their eight children, 24 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, nearly all of whom live in Massachusetts.

“The technology has been great,” Fred said. “Between FaceTiming on the iPad, iPhone and computer, it’s been really good to see them all and talk to them. We also visit each other quite a lot. We have some coming to visit in September and October, and we are usually there for Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Long-distance grandparents often worry about being able to maintain a relationship with their grandchildren, but technology, frequent visits and maintaining multi-generational relationships can all bring them closer.

“Although some grandparents view long distances as a reason for their deteriorated relationship with their grandchildren, many grandparents feel just the opposite,” said Madonna Harrington Meyer, a sociology professor at Syracuse University. “Because they live far apart, they tend to have longer and more intense visits.”

More grandparents are frequently traveling to visit their grandchildren and also have grandchildren visit during school breaks, often without their parents, as is the case with the Daileys and Masons.

Long-distance grandparents and grandchildren also visit each other for longer periods of time — sometimes as long as an entire summer break. Many grandparents become more like second parents during these lengthier visits, while others choose to fill their role as teacher to build a rewarding relationship with their grandchildren.

“Although long distance can lead to heartache, it often leads to satisfying relationships for those who employ technological solutions, longer and more intense visits, redefine grandparenting roles and maintain positive multigenerational relationships,” Harrington Meyer said.

Providing Child Care

Although many grandparents are separated from their grandchildren by distance, those who live close by are often tasked with greater responsibility.

Child care is one of the biggest expenses families face, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank created to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.

In Florida, child care for the average 4-year-old costs about $607 a month.

Harrington Meyer said about half of grandparents in the U.S. provide at least some child care for their grandchildren. Many step in to help ease that financial strain.

“Grandparents have always done this, but it is often more intense now,” Harrington Meyer said. “They are providing more hours and doing more parental tasks during those hours.”

Village of Dunedin resident Deb Mehr cares for her three grandchildren — 2-year-old Cullen, 4-year-old Keely and 6-year-old Finley — every Tuesday and Wednesday and every other Friday.

“When (my husband) Doug and I moved here a year and a half ago, I moved here because my daughter lived in Ocala and he moved here because of golf,” Mehr said. “Since then, we’ve found friendships far beyond what we ever imagined. I golf with a group once a week, so Thursday is a day I (don’t) work. I have to do things for myself, also.”

But two or three times a week, Mehr leaves her house by 6 a.m. to get to Ocala so she can help with the morning routine of breakfast, diapers, getting dressed, checking backpacks and lunch bags and getting everyone out the door.

Her daughter, Annie, or son-in-law, Kyle, drop off the oldest child at first grade, but Mehr makes sure the other two make it to preschool.

“What I didn’t expect was all of the chauffeuring that needs to be done,” she said. “I drop the younger two off at their school by 8:30 then pick them up at 11:45. Then, not long after, we head to the elementary school to sit in the car line there to wait for the oldest, who gets out of school at 2:05.”

Mehr splits the weekly child care with her son-in-law’s mother, who watches the children Monday, Thursday and every other Friday.

“They’re fortunate to have two grandparents able to help,” she said. “My daughter and son-in-law both work, so they appreciate that I’m able to come up there. Day care can make finances tight in every home, regardless of income. My other daughter in Colorado said they’re ‘one-and-done’ because day care is so expensive.”

Historically, the role of grandparents was very different from the role of parents, Harrington Meyer said.

“Grandparents were supposed to take the kids to the zoo or the park, while parents were supposed to worry about proper nutrition, good manners and calculus,” she said.

But the lines between those roles are blurring.

“When we moved here, I didn’t expect to have the relationship I do with the kids,” Mehr said.

Although the days can be long and tiring, Mehr wants to care for her grandchildren as long as she can.

“I feel fortunate to spend this much time with (them),” she said. “I am very blessed to be able to be here for all of their firsts — first bike ride, first day of school, first concert — so many firsts I’d miss if I was anywhere else. I absolutely love it.

“I just never thought one year would turn into two years and the length of time I’d be helping out. Cullen still has three more years until he enters kindergarten. I keep telling Annie, at some point I may have to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

And Mehr isn’t alone.

Seventy percent of grandparents who provide child care for their grandchildren end up doing so for two years or more, according to 2017 Census data.

Harrington Meyer credits the increase in single and working mothers for that added responsibility.

She said many employers in the U.S. do not provide much support for working families, including the guarantee of paid vacation, paid parental leave or affordable, quality child care.

“Many people do not have these basic supports and, without them, it is very hard to juggle work and children,” Harrington Meyer said. “What are parents to do on snow days and sick days? Increasingly, they call grandma.”

Impacts of Changing Roles

Grandparenting can impact the emotional, physical and financial well-being of grandchildren.

There is joy associated with being a grandparent, with some calling it the happiest time of their lives.

But grandparents who provide child care often experience added stress, struggle with anxiety and lack of sleep and find themselves disconnected from their peers, who are able to enjoy leisure and social activities more often, according Generations United, an organization that works to improve lives through intergenerational programs and public policies.

Still, being around young children can lead to a higher level of fitness and feeling younger.

“I came down here after having open-heart surgery,” Mehr said. “Being with the kids has definitely made me active, and I use muscles I hadn’t used in a long time. I don’t sleep as much, but on the days after I’ve had the kids, I’ve learned to do nothing in the morning but sleep in, then play golf in the afternoon. I just enjoy that day of resting.”

Although being a grandparent can be tiring, most wouldn’t change their situation.

“The grandparents I’ve (spoken to) loved their grandchildren,” said Harrington Meyer. “Just talking about them (brought) happy tears.”

She said nearly all grandparents she’s encountered in her career talked about the joy they felt spending time with grandchildren and loved how happy the kids were to see them.

“I totally love my time with my grandkids,” Mehr said. “I feel so fortunate to have been able to be with them, to see them grow and to cuddle with them daily.”

Many grandparents, like Mehr, move to be closer to grandchildren, reduce work hours to be more flexible to see them and rarely say no when their children ask them to watch the kids.

“They’re aware that grandkids grow up, so this is a narrow window to create a close bond while they are young,” Harrington Meyer said. “The closeness of that bond adds a lot of joy and meaning to many (grandparents’) lives, and those who do not have it talked about how much they were missing out on — how much they wish they did have it.”

Staff writer Monique Meeks can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5387, or monique.meeks@thevillagesmedia.com.