Grandparents embrace bigger caregiving role

Ralph Grah gets a hug from his granddaughter, Riley Grah, 6, of Citrus Springs, at his home in the Village of St. James. Riley spends a lot of time with her grandparents during the summertime to participate in Camp Villages activities.

Jacqui Mitchell will never forget the day she became a grandparent. “Just thinking about it makes me emotional,” she said. “It was such a gift to meet my granddaughter for the first time and be in her life.” As the U.S. celebrates Grandparents Day today, Mitchell is one of an increasing number of grandparents who help provide child care for their grandchildren. According to a 2018 report from AARP, 38% of grandparents in the U.S. provide day care for their grandchildren. Of those, 5% serve as primary caregivers. About 11% of grandparents live in the same household as their grandchild. Mitchell moved to the Village of Monarch Grove earlier this year to be closer to her family. “I watch them about three times a week and help out when needed,” she said. “It’s my favorite job.” She said the arrangement is a win-win situation for the entire family. “I help my son and his wife by freeing up their schedule, and I get to see my grandchildren,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

More Grandparents Than Ever

The AARP study reports there are more than 70 million grandparents in America — a 25% increase from the recorded 56 million in 2001. Nearly 96% of Americans age 65 or older are grandparents. By 2030, it is projected that 1 in every 5 residents will be 65 or older, further increasing the number of grandparents.

The average age of first-time grandparents in the U.S. was found to be 50, two years older than the average in 2011.

Many elements factor into this rising age, with one main component being education.

Karen Guzzo, sociology professor and acting director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University, said with each generation, people are getting more education and waiting longer to have children.

“The longer you spend getting an education the longer you wait to start a family,” she said. “We’ve seen the last two generations wait longer to have their first child, which impacts other family demographics like the age of first-time grandparents.”

This wasn’t the case for Juanita and Tom Tomcik. The Tomciks recently became great-grandparents after their grandson’s daughter was born in July.

Juanita is 66 and she said both her daughter and grandson started their families young.

“I never would have thought I would get to be a great-grandmother,” she said. “It is truly such a blessing for me to have such a beautiful family.”

Mitchell was 54 when her granddaughter, Kate, was born in 2018. She became a grandparent for the second time in June, when her grandson, Jackson, joined the family.

She said she feels like her grandchildren entered at a perfect time in her life.

“I am so glad Kate came into my life (when she did),” she said. “We love to go to Disney so we can chase after her and keep up with her energy.”

Kate and Jackson’s other grandmother, Liz Cipris, is also a younger grandmother at 52.

Cipris teaches at The Villages Charter School, while Mitchell is the head coach of The Villages High School swimming teams.

“We have a family dynamic different from most,” Mitchell said. “My son and Liz’s daughter started their family together, so both our grandkids have grandmothers who (work) at the same school.”

Cipris said being younger with small grandchildren makes playtime a little easier.

“I don’t have to worry about losing energy,” she said, “or getting up off the floor if they are playing.”

Providing Child Care

Gerry and Sandra Hafer watch their 9-year-old granddaughter, Kadence Hafer, every day while her father, Michael Hafer, is at work.

The Hafers got to spend the first two years of Kadence’s life watching her grow.

“Her dad would bring her around in the morning before he left for work, around 6 a.m.,” Gerry said. “She would still be asleep so she would sleep on my chest.”

Gerry said he is incredibly grateful for the amount of time they get to spend in Kadence’s life.

“I wouldn’t trade those days for anything,” he said. “I’m so happy we get to be in her life.”

Now, Gerry and Sandra watch Kadence while she completes her online learning in her virtual classroom.

Madonna Harrington Meyer, a sociology professor at Syracuse University, said the level of child care being provided by grandparents today often goes way beyond just babysitting.

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

The Hafers think getting to spend so much time with her family has helped shape Kadence into who she is. They said they tried to raise their son with a strong sense of family, and they are proud to see it rubbing off on Kadence.

“Her parents separated when she was around 4 years old and she handled the change so well,” Gerry said. “She knew she still was a part of a healthy family, it was just changing how it worked.”

Intergenerational Bonding

Rachel Margolis, sociologist and demographer at the University of Western Ontario, said both grandchildren and grandparents benefit from strong relationships with each other.

“It’s been shown that grandchildren receive cognitive benefits from spending time with grandparents,” she said. “And it’s common for grandparents to be inspired by their grandchildren to keep active.”

Margolis has conducted analysis on the topics of demography of grandparenthood and shifting family dynamics, partly inspired by her own family.

“I was close with my grandparents growing up,” she said.

Margolis said she is grateful for the connections she made with her grandparents.

Mary Ann and Ralph Grah are lucky enough to see their granddaughter Riley, and their new granddaughter Peyton, a few times every month. The Grahs live in the Village of St. James and love spending time with the girls on the weekends.

Riley, 6, spends the most time with her grandparents during the summertime to participate in Camp Villages activities. Riley’s done several sessions of Camp Villages each year since she was 3 years old.

“It’s amazing watching her grow and develop,” Mary Ann said. “Seeing the new things she’s interested in and likes to do and talk about is wonderful.”

Lisa Parkyn, lifestyle events coordinator with the Villages Recreation and Parks Department, said Camp Villages is a staple event for many residents who are grandparents.

“Camp Villages is a success every summer,” she said. “We see so many families having fun with each other and we as a department are so glad to offer those opportunities.”

Parkyn said the connections grandchildren make with their grandparents are important for their development.

They learn how to work and connect with new friends and people from different generations, she said.

Camp Villages didn’t occur this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but plans for next year are already underway.

“We decided to not hold the summer Camp Villages sessions out of an abundance of caution,” Parkyn said, “but next year we plan on holding all of the activities we originally scheduled for this year.”

The Recreation and Parks Department published activities grandparents could do at home this summer with their grandchildren in the Recreation News.

“We always get grandparents asking for ways to do activities at home, but normally it’s because tickets for a certain event sold out,” Parkyn said. “So we were easily able to transition to those at-home activities for the pandemic.”

Parkyn hopes next year is safe for Camp Villages, because she often sees the same families through the years.

“Some kids love the same activities, so we get to watch them grow up,” she said. “It shows how the program is beneficial for them.”​

Long-Distance Relationships

Ralph and Mary Ann have other grandchildren who they don’t see in person often due to them living in California.

“It’s harder to connect with them because I don’t know what they like or what they do,” Ralph said. “We talk on FaceTime and about school and stuff but it’s not the same.”

AARP reported more than 50% of grandparents live more than 200 miles away from their grandkids, which is the main hurdle in seeing them.

Technology is something many grandparents are learning to use to stay connected to their family.

Thirty-eight percent of grandparents say they use video calls to connect with their grandchildren at least a few times a month.

It’s been several years since they’ve visited in person, and Ralph said he notices time passing more quickly when he sees them on video calls.

“With Riley we don’t notice how much she grows and learns because we see her frequently,” Ralph said. “But my oldest grandchild in California is around 13 years old, and it’s like I don’t even believe it.”

For the Tomciks, they couldn’t see their new great-granddaughter Grace until several weeks after she was born.

“It’s so hard being away from them,” Juanita said. “I love our life here in Florida but it’s a challenge to not see them every day.”

Beverly and Dave Spangler, of the Village of DeSoto, also have grandchildren who live far away, but they use technology like FaceTime and other video-call software to stay connected to their family.

“We try and video call whenever we can,” Beverly said. “It’s not every night but we don’t like to let too many days go by without talking to them.”

While getting to catch up with everyone and hear their voices, it isn’t quite the same as being with someone face to face.

Dave said even though the kids are young, they recognized his and Beverly’s voices and were so happy to be reunited with their grandparents.

In early August, the Spanglers made a trip to North Carolina to visit their grandchildren after almost eight months apart.

“Getting to finally hug them was so amazing,” Beverly said. “It felt so nice to not see them just on a little screen.”

Staff writer Maddie Cutler can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5386, or maddie.cutler@thevillagesmedia.com.