Why grandparents are the ultimate essential workers

Last updated: 11-29-2020

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Why grandparents are the ultimate essential workers

Willy de Lange (70) and Kiek Boelaars (65) have four grandchildren aged between six and nine: two granddaughters from Willy’s daughter, two grandsons from her son.

The couple, who live in the Netherlands, babysits the girls once every two weeks and the boys once a month. They have frequent sleepovers which the grandchildren "always look forward to," says Willy – they love playing games, reading stories and just spending time together.

Willy: “And we don’t just spoil them; we discipline the children occasionally as well. If they’re chewing with their mouths open, for example. I can’t stand that and will always say something about it. And they’ll listen to us.”

Babysitting, sleepovers and even simple visits are now The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) guidelines state: “Grandparents (under the age of 70) may pay a visit as long as everyone is healthy and stays 1.5 metres apart. However, babysitting is not recommended as it is difficult to maintain the necessary distance (depending on the age of the children).” Due to the difficulty of practicing social distancing with very young children, many grandparents have not seen their grandchildren at all in recent months. Read more about Dutch public health guidelines here (in Dutch). " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-1dff9639-c921-4b14-9bd6-c490cdae4018" > out of the question, during the coronavirus pandemic. Both Willy and Kiek feel the loss greatly. To Kiek, the measures seem a bit excessive: she doesn’t feel vulnerable, while the newspapers inform her that children are unlikely to get ill from the coronavirus and probably won’t spread it, either. Why shouldn’t she be allowed to hug, cuddle, roughhouse or play with her grandchildren? “Sometimes I wonder: is this all really necessary?”

But Willy’s son and daughter are both “strict” when it comes to  following the guidelines. “They’re not allowing any form of physical contact,” she says.

The couple does cycle past their grandchildren’s houses regularly; they wave to each other through the window. And the other day, on Kiek’s birthday, the families sat together outside in the garden, making sure to keep well apart. Still, it hasn’t been easy. Like most young children, Willy and Kiek’s grandchildren are active and energetic, preferring to cuddle and play over “having a nice chat over a cup of tea,” as Willy puts it.

It’s precisely these physical, active ways of showing affection – connecting through actions rather than words – that are now off-limits.

Over the past several months, the message has been clear: older people and vulnerable populations – particularly those who fall into both groups – should stay home as much as possible. Elderly nursing home residents have been barred from receiving visitors. Even grandparents who feel fit and active, like Kiek, have been advised not to get too close to grandchildren.

As a result some grandparents have stopped seeing their grandchildren altogether, while others continue to visit despite often feeling that they’re doing something “sneaky”. Some grandparents have isolated themselves for self-preservation; others are denied access by their own children – which for many feels more like a punishment than a form of loving protection.

My own parents came to visit  for the first time two months into the lockdown. We stuck dutifully to social distancing guidelines at first, but eventually the desire for closeness and connection became too much to bear: the children crawled into their laps for a story, and my parents relished this break in the rules.

While the impact As the New York Times put it, grandparents in the US “are split into two groups: those who are quarantined from their families and those who are isolating beside them”. For Grandparents, Filling In for Child Care Can Be ‘Wonderful and Exhausting’. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-a4459c15-b429-4787-a617-45179108d6bf" > differs from grandparent to grandparent, just as the role of grandparents differs from family to family, nearly everyone I spoke to over the past few months felt that there was something strangely artificial about separating “older people” from “the rest”.

For many, this isolation has been painful. Kiek’s grief was palpable when I spoke to her, transmitted loud and clear despite our patchy Zoom connection. And it’s easy to see why. The current situation in which many grandparents suddenly have been cut off from their grandchildren flies in the face of one of the defining characteristics of our species: cooperation among generations.

This inter-generational interdependence is a uniquely human trait – few species know such close ties between grandchildren, children, parents, and grandparents.

The bond between grandchild and grandparent isn’t always a close one, of course. Plenty of grandchildren grow up without seeing much of their grandparents at all, and many grandparents only visited their grandchildren sporadically even before the pandemic hit. Even so, grandparents can be an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. After all, everyone had them.

And we’re enjoying them for longer, on average, than ever before. Had you been born in Finland in 1860, for example, you would have shared on average only four years of your life with a grandmother and only one year with a grandfather. A century later, the average overlap between grandchild and grandparent had risen to no less than 24 years for grandmothers and 13 years Source: Ann Buchanan & Anna Rotkirch (2018): 'Twenty-first century grandparents: global perspectives on changing roles and consequences', Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, Vol.13, No.2. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-24b6c9bf-d445-4b57-85f2-3c7508f327a3" > for grandfathers. In the United States, the number of 10 year-olds with four living grandparents increased seven-fold over the course of the 20th century: from 6% at the turn of the century to 41% Source: Contemporary Grandparenting. Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts: 'Transformation in the role of grandparents across welfare states', 2012. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-899a2b58-0991-4687-9724-521202ef13af" > at its close.

Human grandparents are exceptionally long lived compared to most other species, for which the lifespan of animal grandparents There are some known exceptions, including orcas. Why do orca grandmothers live so long? It's for their grandkids. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-f53f0bcf-d3f2-4665-8980-c26eb57f80ae" > rarely overlaps those of their "grandchildren”. This simple fact of life has long confused researchers. Why are we so different?

It all starts with menopause, an all too friendly term that suggests a temporary interruption – as if a woman’s regularly scheduled programming could resume at any moment, as if a “play” button might be pressed to get everything up and running again. But as we know, menopause is an irreversible process that marks the end of a woman’s fertile years.

Not that it marks the end of her life – not even close. Many post-menopausal women still have decades of life ahead of them. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is quite puzzling. Usually, as two anthropologists put it: Source: Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan (2008): 'Beyond the Grandmother Hypothesis: Evolutionary Models of Longevity' in The Cultural Context of Ageing: Worldwide Perspectives, eds. J. Sokolovsky, Praeger. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-4eb464bb-2aa6-4c88-93b2-db759514ceaa" > “Sterility is the evolutionary equivalent of death.”

Why do the females of our species (along with orcas, Japanese aphids and a handful of other exceptions) live much longer lives than Darwinian natural selection Read more about this puzzling phenomenon in Why Menopause? by Carl Zimmer. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-34570bd4-c821-49d2-9072-8594f0228ce2" > would seem to predict? Read more about this puzzling phenomenon in Why Menopause? by Carl Zimmer. Men, for that matter, also tend to stop procreating several decades before the end of their lifespans despite remaining fertile for virtually their entire lives.

Our exceptionally long post-reproductive years can’t be attributed to improved living conditions alone. While it’s true that advancements in hygiene, nutrition, and medical knowledge have caused our average life expectancy to increase by two years each decade over the past 200 years, humans regularly lived to old age even Not as often as they do today, of course, but often. According to anthropologist Michael Gurven, people in traditional hunter-gatherer societies can live very long lives, despite lacking access to the abundant food, resources and medical care found in industrialised societies. A woman living in a traditional society who reaches the age of 45 may well go on to live another 20 or 25 years. Clearly, longevity is not a consequence of modernisation. Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan (2008): 'Beyond the Grandmother Hypothesis: Evolutionary Models of Longevity' in: The Cultural Context of Ageing: Worldwide Perspectives, 3rd edition, ed. Sokolovsky. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-fa27800d-786c-4e3f-8a30-8338707f96de" > before these modern developments.

In the late 1970s, US anthropologist Kristen Hawkes posited her While conducting fieldwork among the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania, Hawkes observed that older women often collected food for the rest of the community – in other words, they didn’t just consume resources, but also contributed. This led Hawkes to formulate her “grandmother hypothesis”. Read more about Hawkes on her University of Utah profile page. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-508b0d5c-1788-42e7-a8f5-aa093be76fcc" > “grandmother hypothesis”, which argues that grandmothers are useful from an evolutionary perspective because they provide vital support to their children and grandchildren.  Raising children is a lot of work, after all; women who receive help from their mothers can have more children more quickly. Their offspring are also Sharing care duties also carries evolutionary benefits for the grandmothers, a principle known as “inclusive fitness”. In helping their adult children, grandmothers improve the odds that their grandchildren will survive and later go on to reproduce. Since grandmothers share genes with their grandchildren, anything that enhances their grandchildren’s “fitness” also promotes their own “fitness”. By investing in your siblings and grandchildren, you can increase the chance that your shared genes will survive to the next generation. (Which is why geneticist JBS. Haldane reportedly declared that he would lay down his life for “two brothers or eight cousins”.) " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-08533d07-4588-40fb-815e-0f4c81eb610c" > more likely to survive. Over time, this process helped to spread hereditary traits which contribute to longevity in women, leading gradually to longer and longer post-menopausal lifespans.

In the years since Hawkes first formulated her hypothesis, researchers found more evidence NPR: Living Near Your Grandmother Has Evolutionary Benefits. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-d4ac3c32-c684-4946-809c-b839052b1656" > to support this theory. NPR: Living Near Your Grandmother Has Evolutionary Benefits. For example, several studies found that women who live close to their mothers go on to have more children than their sisters who move further away. This was not only true for populations in the 17th and 18th centuries, but In the United Kingdom, recent data shows frequent contact with grandparents is associated with a greater probability of having a second child. For third or subsequent children, it depends on whether the grandparents are on the mother's side or the father's side. Contact with maternal grandparents actually reduces the chance of having a third child, while contact with paternal grandparents does not. One possible explanation: when it comes to determining how many children to have, there’s always a trade-off between the “quality” and “quantity” of the offspring, to put it bluntly. After all, the more children you have, the fewer resources you can “invest” in each child. Maternal grandparents can be sure that their grandchildren actually carry their genetic material and are therefore more likely to focus on quality. However, paternal grandparents, like fathers in general, can never be 100% sure of their genetic relationship to their offspring. From an evolutionary perspective, this might make them more inclined to focus on quantity. See: A. O. Tanskanen, M. Jokela, M. Danielsbacka, and A. (2014): 'Grandparental Effects on Fertility Vary by Lineage in the United Kingdom' in Human Nature, Vol. 25, No. 2 " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-c1d466ce-c8db-464f-9fd3-47543460fed0" > even for modern industrialised societies.

The exact evolutionary mechanism behind our long post-reproductive lifespans is still subject to considerable debate The “mother hypothesis” holds that longer lifespans don’t so much benefit our grandchildren as our children. Since human children take so long to mature, women who stop reproducing in their early forties can conceivably still be caring for their children up to or even beyond the age of 60. Seen from this perspective, living to old age actually benefits our children more than our grandchildren. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-81266573-ba2c-4699-a6ca-17c0f6256913" > among biologists and anthropologists, as is the question of just how grandparents contribute to their grandchildren’s odds of survival in various contexts.

“The evolutionary story is that without multi-generational households, we would not exist as we do,” US anthropologist Read more about Gurven’s research here. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-a38f8b3c-e9a4-4908-b0ee-c0137f6e635a" > Michael Gurven Read more about Gurven’s research here. explained to me. “Children are dependent for such a long time; they’ll eat more than they’ll produce well into their teens, and if you have more mouths to feed besides theirs, well, it’s just not gonna happen on your own. The human family is an extended, multi-generational family.” 

Grandparents’ help is crucial – and not just because of the huge amount of energy and resources it takes to raise a child, although that’s certainly Source: Michael Gurven (2010): 'An evolutionary perspective can help unify disparate accounts of grandparental investment', in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 33, No.1. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-bb652325-803a-4f9a-a2e0-11672fd66f64" > part of the puzzle. According to Gurven, grandparents make “a unique contribution to children’s development”. Decades of fieldwork with indigenous communities in the Amazon have led him to believe that grandparents’ added value lies not just in the food they collect for their grandchildren, but particularly in the stories they tell – information Gurven and his co-authors write that older adults can serve as “‘libraries’ of accumulated cultural and practical knowledge”. Evolution and Human Behaviour: 'Information transmission and the oral tradition: Evidence of a late-life service niche for Tsimane Amerindians', 2018 " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-e0c4ff20-65ac-4deb-b437-778f42e25a17" > they pass on.

Children learn different things from different generations, says Gurven: parents tend to focus on teaching practical skills, while grandparents are responsible for helping children develop a sense of the world around them and teaching them to see the bigger picture – skills equally important for their survival.

While most humans no longer live in small hunter-gatherer communities, the role of grandparents has in no way diminished. In many parts of the world, grandparents have become increasingly involved in childcare A group of researchers from Yale and the University of Chicago discussed this phenomenon in a special issue of the Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences devoted to grandparents. Ann Buchanan & Anna Rotkirch (2018): “Twenty-first century grandparents: global perspectives on changing roles and consequences”, Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, Vol.13, No.2 " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-885a7bca-4981-4e35-aa9e-a7b5f17ecf98" > over the past several decades.

People above the age of 60 already outnumber children younger than five. Their proportion of the world population will only increase in the decades ahead. As fertility rates continue to shrink, the result is more grandparents and fewer grandchildren, enabling grandparents to divide their time and attention among a smaller brood. Their support is often In the Netherlands, for example, the number of grandparents who babysit their grandchildren has been increasing steadily since the 1990s. Teun Geurts, Theo Van Tilburg, Anne-Rigt Poortman and Pearl A. Dykstra (2015): “Child care by grandparents: changes between 1992 and 2006”, in: Ageing and Society, Vol.35, No.6 " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-ffe0ff9f-53e1-4bf7-97b1-5fae9992fb03" > badly needed – as parents are squeezed economically The Atlantic: Making It Millennial. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-ac5822e8-382e-4873-b5c0-d121721ecdd6" > across much of the industrialised world. The Atlantic: Making It Millennial.

Of course, not all grandparents are involved in caring for grandchildren. Kiek and Willy have very few memories of their own grandparents, and Willy raised her children with little help from either her parents or in-laws. My own mother occasionally regales me with tales about friends of hers, who refuse to babysit their grandchildren because they find it  too exhausting, too physically demanding, or simply not enough fun.

(These stories always leave me feeling a bit uneasy: is she trying to tell me something?)

According to sociologist Read more about Dykstra’s research here. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-023c5312-ca9d-4989-a863-082a01f40cfb" > Pearl Dykstra, Read more about Dykstra’s research here. grandparents’ roles differ widely based on preferences, family circumstances and the cultures Sociologists Katharina Herlofson and Gunhild O Hagestad identified three main roles in grandparents, depending on circumstances. "Child savers" step in to care for their grandchildren when parents are unable to do so. "Mother savers" watch their grandchildren while mothers work outside the home. "Family savers" provide extra support in times of emergency. These roles may overlap in real life, but the framework can help to examine grandparents' roles. Katharine Herlofson and Gunhild O. Hagestad (2012): 'Transformations in the role of grandparents across welfare states', in: Contemporary Grandparenting: Changing Family Relationships in Global Contexts, eds. Ara Arber and Virpi Timonen, Policy Press. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-3f8fe963-23ae-463c-9b1d-ba5159dd93c7" > in which they live. In China and the Philippines, parents may move to faraway cities or abroad in search of work, leaving children in the care of their grandparents. In parts of Africa that were ravaged by the HIV/Aids epidemic, millions of children lost both parents and were subsequently raised by grandparents. In the United States, where 10% of grandparents share a household with According to the United States Census Bureau. 10 Percent of Grandparents Live With a Grandchild, Census Bureau Reports. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-5c27afd8-bd6e-44ea-897f-5ad893962c00" > one or more of their grandchildren, over two million grandparents are raising their grandchildren due to factors including The Atlantic: “This is the Age of Grandparents”. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-ac9d2f59-d5a0-42d1-8f51-21f137fd248e" > parental illness or death. The Atlantic: “This is the Age of Grandparents”.

In Europe, 44% of grandmothers and 42% of grandfathers help look after their grandchildren Source: Ann Buchanan and Anna Rotkirch (2018): 'Twenty-first century grandparents: global perspectives on changing roles and consequences', in Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences, Vol. 13, No.2. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-037d841c-12ab-445d-bef5-dffb3107aa48" > either regularly or occasionally. (Maternal grandparents are more likely to do so Source: Ann Buchanan and Anna Rotkirch (2016): 'Grandfathers: Global Perspectives', Palgrave Macmillan, p. 6 " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-69a094af-7c0f-4c57-a8cf-3d74c9c071fd" > than paternal grandparents ). In some countries, such as Italy, childcare is so expensive and in such short supply that having grandparents who are willing to babysit is a prerequisite for many women Unfortunately, the fact that many Italian grandparents are willing to help out means that the government has little incentive to improve access to childcare, notes Dykstra. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-2879de72-2d55-42e2-aa34-2f905021373c" > to work outside the home. Even where childcare is more accessible, grandparents often pitch in to help: in the UK, for example, “informal care” provided by grandparents is estimated to save £7bn every year Source: Grandparents Plus: Annual Report 2014. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-2253abf9-8574-4321-ac1c-8c5d5173f600" > in childcare costs.

In the Netherlands, where I live, many grandparents help care for and raise their grandchildren. Four out of 10 Dutch families with young children combine “formal” care (such as day care and after-school care) with “informal” care, often provided by grandparents like Willy and Kiek who watch the children for a certain number Source: The Netherlands Institute for Social Research: ‘Summary - A Look at childcare: How parents think about the affordability, accessibility and quality of childcare’, 2018 " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-4107c5a2-b25e-4e3f-8a83-e6b16041aa9e" > of hours each week.

Many grandparents donate not only their time but also money and material goods. My own parents, for example, have ‘gifted’ us a small fortune in puzzles, books and children’s clothing over the past six years.

All of this is great for parents, who get free childcare and can go off to work knowing that their children are in good hands (well, mostly good: according to at least one study, children cared for by their grandparents are at greater The Source: ‘Being raised by grandparents may increase risk for childhood obesity’. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-12c72678-d26f-4c87-b86e-80404d2e960d" > risk for obesity). The Source: ‘Being raised by grandparents may increase risk for childhood obesity’. But it’s also great – in fact, beneficial – for grandchildren, and for the grandparents, too.

According to US developmental psychologist and philosopher Read more about Gopnik’s research here. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-3f337177-b39f-4677-86c9-afb990672a11" > Alison Gopnik, Read more about Gopnik’s research here. help from grandparents can have a positive impact on children’s development. During infancy and early childhood, our single most important goal in life is to  explore the world around us as much as possible. The key word here is variety,Gopnik explained recently: “Children don’t just learn from their parents; they learn by observing and listening to – and being cared for by – as many different people as possible. The more examples they are given of how to be in the world, the better they develop.”

(This will probably ring true for many readers. I for one have  found that my own parents have far more patience with my children than I do: they will sit through games that I find excruciating and read them stories that I can’t stand.)

Being involved in grandchildren’s lives benefits grandparents as well, says Dykstra. “Older people today are living longer, are more affluent and have more free time,” she says. “Caring for grandchildren can add purpose When Pew Research Center interviewed older people about their lives a decade ago, 28% of respondents aged 65 and up said that what they value most about growing older is the chance to spend more time with their families. Another 25% said that they valued spending time with their grandchildren most of all. Pew Research Center: 'Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality'. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-a514215a-dc85-4ed9-bcf6-fb819fdd20c3" > and meaning to their lives.” It may also keep them young: “Research shows that older people who spend more time with their grandchildren demonstrate slower ‘cognitive decline’ than For example, research on the impact of childcare on grandparents’ cognitive functioning showed that grandparents who regularly look after their grandchildren score higher on verbal fluency tests. However, the benefits to grandparents’ mental and physical health disappear if care duties become too stressful or demanding. Bruno Arpino and Valeria Bordone (2014): 'Does grand parenting pay off? The Effect of Child Care on Grandparents’ Cognitive Functioning', in Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol.76. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-74d8fed8-0fb0-4b1e-ba29-9e1328bf7b65" > those who do not.”

(Of course caring for grandchildren can also be tiring and stressful, especially when grandparents take on the responsibilities of parents. Data from the United States shows that grandparents who serve as primary caregivers are much more likely to suffer from fatigue, stress, depression, insomnia Read more in this piece from the Atlantic. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-2faead85-e23d-4533-aa8b-62f0c8d95a3a" > and feelings of isolation.) Read more in this piece from the Atlantic.

For many grandchildren, the relationship with a grandparent is a special kind of bond: you can confide in your grandma or grandpa about things you might not want to share with your parents. Perhaps just as important: you can talk to them about your parents too.

Research among British children found that frequent contact with grandparents was associated with greater well-being. Of course it’s always difficult to separate cause and effect in studies like these. It’s entirely possible that happy, well-adjusted children might open up to their grandparents more easily than children who are The study involved a representative sample of over 1,500 children aged 11 to 16 from across England and Wales. Grandparental involvement was linked to greater social, emotional and behavioural well-being in study participants (as measured using a “Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire”). Ann Buchanan and Anna Rotkirch (2016): Grandfathers: Global Perspectives, Palgrave Macmillan. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-9d947624-4ec2-48c3-91fc-bf724ceb7a3d" > struggling or unhappy.

The benefits aren’t felt just on an individual level. “Families are one of the few remaining places in our society where members of different generations meet and interact,” says Dykstra. “That’s important for social cohesion. Grandparents can teach their grandchildren traditional games and songs, while grandchildren can introduce their grandparents to modern technology, showing them how to use Zoom, for example.”

The result: “Greater social participation for the older generation and more historical perspective for young people” – not to mention that young people who see their grandparents more often tend also to have more positive attitudes Source: J. Harwood, M. Hewstone, S. Paolini, and A. Voci (2005): 'Grandparent- grandchild contact and attitudes toward older adults: Moderator and mediator effects', in: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 31. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-aa0d8fc8-6fa7-4f63-9454-b817314912b7" > toward older people in general.

Whether you look from an evolutionary, psychological or economic perspective, then, it’s clear that raising children is too big a job for parents to do alone. Grandparents can, and often do, play a crucial role. As a society, we often fail to appreciate the true importance of this complicated inter-generational dance.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made this painfully clear. Many people have been quick to remark that older adults should just stay at home, as if being involved in their grandchildren’s lives were merely a luxury that could easily be done without. Even so, Dykstra’s observation – that industrialised societies offer very few opportunities for different generations to interact outside family gatherings – held true even before the coronavirus.

In many parts of the world, industrialisation and urbanisation are driving the different generations and stages of life increasingly apart, explains Gopnik. Children spend their days at school (neatly sorted by age group) while their parents work elsewhere, with grandparents living in their own homes or in a nursing home or This phenomenon is also known as “age segregation”. One consequence of age segregation is that young people tend to grow up with a poor understanding of what middle-aged and elderly peoples’ lives are like, and adults fail to connect with younger generations. Pearl Dykstra and Maria Fleischmann (2018): 'Are Societies with a High Value on the Active Ageing Index More Age Integrated?', in Building Evidence for Active Ageing Policies " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-f5b96d53-8fba-46a1-814d-55d986781904" > assisted living community.

Many modern, industrial societies are built on the ideals of individualism and independence, much more than the possibilities of mutual cooperation and interdependence. The nuclear family – father, mother, two or three children – has become the main unit for nurturing future generations, sometimes with the help of paid care in the form of nannies or child minders and day care.

This concept of the nuclear family is in keeping with our current view of society, as something that can be broken down into individualised compartments – a single task for each assembly line worker, a single product for each manufacturer, a single family living in each house, a single set of parents for each child, a separate home for grandparents. But when you stop to think about it, this is a pretty poor way of organising society. From an evolutionary perspective, Several initiatives aim to combat this trend. For example, Finland has pioneered the concept of “communal grandparents”: older adults who volunteer at day care centres and primary schools, playing with and reading to the children there. Quartz: '“She comes, they are happy”: How communal grandparents are helping raise Finnish children' " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-e287e093-e52a-433d-906a-96f67842c59f" > it’s downright ludicrous.

Gopnik’s observation on age segregation reminded me of a scene from the novel Read more on the publisher’s website. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-194fd629-9ed3-44f2-a71a-4706ed411407" > Kudos Read more on the publisher’s website. Read more on the publisher’s website. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-194fd629-9ed3-44f2-a71a-4706ed411407" > by British writer Rachel Cusk, Read more on the publisher’s website. in which the narrator finds herself in a hotel lobby, watching a wedding reception take place further down the road. She notices that the guests are all the same age as the bride and groom – there are no older people in attendance, and no children either. This leaves her with an impression that “these events were bound neither to the future nor the past, and that no one was entirely certain whether it was freedom or irresponsibility that had untethered them.”

It’s something of a paradox: the technological and scientific progress we’ve made over the last several centuries enabled us to grow wealthier, healthier and to live longer than ever before, but it’s also prevented us from fully appreciating the extra years that we’ve been granted. This may have to do, in part, with the fact that the care provided by grandparents is usually free of charge – few parents actually pay grandma and grandpa for their time.

We tend to view this type of care, like most other forms of care, as a labour of love rather than as a key pillar of our society and our economy. Despite the fact that so many parents and children depend on grandparents’ time and efforts, we consider their help to be something incidental, a mere lifestyle choice, rather than a phenomenon that is both systematic and fundamental to our way of life.“This kind of care doesn’t show up in the GDP,” says Gopnik – which might just be why we’ve Source: Outgrowing growth: why quality of life, not GDP, should be our measure of success. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-40a262bc-5b61-44d6-8496-684320ee2131" > come to overlook it entirely.

Many of the most important decisions of our lives – how many children to have, where to live – depend on whether or not we have grandparents or other family members close by. We’re rarely conscious of how these factors influence our choices. As Dykstra puts it: “If you ask someone whether they chose to have a second child because grandma did such a great job babysitting their firstborn, they’ll probably tell you, ‘No, of course not!’”

In a world where half of all Dutch families regularly ask grandparents to provide childcare, and those in other countries do so too; where care provided by grandparents in the UK saves over £7bn each year; and where a significant proportion of US, Filipino and Romanian children are raised by their grandparents, it’s safe to say that grandparents play a key role in shaping future generations.

The different generations are much more closely intertwined than we like to admit. Seen in this light, it’s a shame that many older adults are now being described, first and foremost, as “vulnerable”. If only because our collective strength is not defined by our ability to separate “the vulnerable” from “everybody else” but, as Amy Davidson Sorkin aptly wrote in a recent piece for the New Yorker, Read Amy Davidson Sorkin here. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-ce900d57-dfff-4dc6-8d79-97626ceb83de" > “by our willingness to stand together”. Read Amy Davidson Sorkin here.

“Covid-19 has caused generations to become increasingly separated from one another,” Gopnik says. “It was already happening in many places, but I think the pandemic makes us realise even more how much we depend on the fact that we have grandparents involved in caring for grandchildren. It makes it really vivid that we’ve sort of neglected those two ends of the life-span.” It also makes vivid the loss that ensues when grandparents and grandchildren are unable to interact.

And no, this situation won’t last forever. Just as the learning gaps from months of distance learning are likely to be relatively minor in the long run, the quantifiable “damage” caused by a few months without wisdom and snuggles from grandparents should be fairly minimal. Parents struggling to get their jobs done without grandma and grandpa to babysit for them will eventually find a way to make things work.

The loss that Gopnik describes is altogether more subtle; a private grief felt on an individual level rather than on a societal one. That doesn’t make it any less real for those who are experiencing it.

In the case of Willy and Kiek, this loss has been much harder on them as grandparents than for their grandchildren – fortunately, they hasten to add. “The children have their parents around them all day, they’re busy with their schoolwork, and they see us waving at the window from time to time. I don’t think they’re stressed about missing us,” says Willy.

Although, Kiek adds: “That day in the garden, they ran over to us like they wanted to jump into our arms, and had to stop themselves from doing so... As the day wore on, they started coming closer and closer. Sorry, but I’m not going to push them away.”

It reminds me of how my own children began inching closer and closer to my parents on our first lockdown visit together, eventually crawling onto their laps – a little hesitantly, then more confidently – and how enjoyable this seemed for everyone. Like a return to the natural order of things.

In recent months, residents in cities across the world have been clapping to show support for “essential workers” – nurses, sanitation workers, teachers, supermarket staff. Before the pandemic, these professions were often characterised by their lack of prestige; it took a crisis for us to realise that we can’t live without them. It remains to be seen whether our newfound appreciation will last once things return to “normal”, but it’s a start.

While we’re at it, how about giving the older members of our society a round of applause too – whether they’re grandparents or not? Not because they’re vulnerable. Because we make each other stronger.


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