As I link between past and future, it is the grandparents who plant the seed, knowing full well they may not see the fruit of their harvest.
They plant anyway. Sue and Marv Prins have grandchildren in Milwauke—an eight-hour drive from home. Facebook and phone calls help shrink the distance, but Sue, who lives with a chronic illness, reasons, “I probably won’t live to see my grandchildren as adults.
So what I do is show them, whenever I get the chance, that I’m not afraid to try new things simply because I may be limited. I feel that is the most important thing for me to pass on to them.
As Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid.’ So I’m not. It sends a message to my kids, too.” For grandparents Ken and Anne Recker, grandparenting means travel—logging thousands of miles crisscrossing the Midwest as they visit their eight grandchildren.
They help with sickness when flu season hits, or cook meals and clean house if there are hospitalizations. They are cheerleaders during baseball season and worry about injuries during soccer games. Through these experiences, they have learned they can be indispensable to all three of their married children.
And to foster a new level of family connection, the Reckers use social media and share stories of past generations.
The walls of their home are covered with black-and-white photos, visual reminders of where both sides of the family came from. “We feel it is important that we’re involved with their lives as much as possible,” notes Anne, who loves sharing vivid childhood memories of her grandparents.
Reflecting on memories of grandparents—what they valued and how they lived those values—is one important way to begin looking at the role of grandparenting. These memories can show how grandparents give witness to life, serving as a model for the next generation.
They face increasing challenges, giving them the ability to leave a legacy of resilience, acceptance, faith, and love.
Additionally, the love of a grandparent is unconditional and total. At no other time in life would adults uproot themselves—sell a home, relocate their job, leave friends and possibly other family members—except for the powerful, consuming love of a grandchild who they feel needs them.
As one laughing grandmother admits, “I simply lost my mind when my first grandchild was born. I left everything I had and moved to be near them.”
Grandparents are vital to a child’s identity, research shows. Therefore, it is important to keep the lines of family communication open and strong between grandparents and grandchildren through e-mail, Skyping, texting, blogging family news, cell phone calls, family vacations, or snail mail.
As grandchildren grow out of some activities, they no doubt grow into others, and those interactions—ongoing and changing—allow for enriching life on both sides of the age gap.
One Couple Offers Help
While grandparenting can be rewarding, the path is not always rosy, especially in today’s society. Deacon Gary and Kay Aitchison from the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, have seen a transformation in the family structure, working as a diaconate couple throughout their lives. They saw people struggling to meet the challenges of life as grandparents in the 21st century and being totally unprepared for this new role in their lives.
The Aitchisons have had ample opportunity to witness the growing diversity in families through their involvement with the Christian Family Movement (CFM) since 1966. Having the roles of national presidents of CFM from 1981 to 1985, and international presidents from 2010 to 2013, they have headed an organization that serves over 100,000 families in 48 countries.
Observing their own family of six children, and hearing increasing anxieties from the numerous married and single parents they have met during their ministry, Deacon Gary and Kay identified many hurdles: a rising divorce rate, single parenting, changing family structures, and a lagging commitment to religious traditions.
Due to these issues, they noticed that many aging married couples were being called upon to raise their grandchildren—assisting in the day-to-day care from infancy to adulthood. Grandparents were having to step up to share in transportation needs, emotional investment, counsel during a family crisis, and occasionally serving as live-in help as well as a financial resource.
The Aitchisons began to interact with new grandparents to help them look deeply into the ongoing and changing roles of family life, and at their own history to find the hidden gems there. They wanted to try to break open the mindset families have concerning aging parents, as well.
“Grandparents have much to offer in time, talent, and treasure to their grandchildren, and it is more important than ever to do,” explains Deacon Gary.
“Part of the problem lies in one word, elderly, as opposed to grandparent. These people do not think of themselves as elderly or frail. They are people with health and vitality, [which they] place at the disposal of their families. Many of them work hard, if not harder than they did when they were raising their own kids.
“Grandparents don’t usually see it as a calling at this time of life, but it’s really the beginning of a new spiritual path. Most feel they’ve raised their children. But does it really end once their children are grown? Not really. It never ends.”
Addressing Changes in Family Dynamics
The 2010 US Census shows that over one fourth of the total US population is between the ages of 45 and 64. More than one in every four adults is a grandparent, and as parents are torn in more directions for their jobs, it is falling to grandparents to pick up the slack.
Kay Aitchison sees this in her own family. “Young families, especially, are too busy to get everything accomplished. Two careers pull them in all different directions,” she points out. “So there are lots of things getting missed, not being done, not covered.”
“Grandparents are concerned about this,” Deacon Gary adds. “They tell us they are worried about passing down the faith, teaching kids manners, and a large number we hear from are concerned over the lack of teaching values.”
Here, grandparents are powerful role models. They have a life of accumulated experiences—both good and bad—along with a skill set to share.
However, the biggest obstacle the Aitchisons have discovered when speaking with grandparents is that they hesitate to get too deeply involved out of fear.
“If you don’t share with your children and grandchildren your own life of faith and hope in the future,” Deacon Gary tells them, “the culture will teach them for you.”
And that outcome gives many grandparents pause. “Most of all, grandparents don’t want to interfere or cause trouble within the family,” he continues.
“This is where we can help them explore new ways to enhance the grandparent/grandchild relationship. This like-to-like ministry gives grandparents support and friendship, while it empowers them in their new vocation.”
The Value of Grandparents
Deacon Gary and Kay give talks to groups on grandparenting called “The Grand Adventure.” They begin by reminding audiences of the earliest tradition in Christianity of grandparenting—the lives of Saints Joachim and Anne, grandparents of Jesus.
According to the Greek Orthodox tradition, Mary’s parents moved with her from Nazareth to Jerusalem where they dedicated their daughter to God as a consecrated virgin at the age of 10. Not long after this, Saint Joachim died at age 80.
Saint Anne, a widow wishing to live close to her daughter, bought land for a tomb where she could be buried with her husband. The spot she chose? Near the gates of the Garden of Gethsemane.
One can easily imagine Mary taking her son by the hand to visit and pray at the tomb of his grandparents throughout his early life. This makes his choice of the Garden of Gethsemane for his own final hours on earth steeped with tenderness and relevance for any grandparent’s meditation and prayer.
“Along with self-confidence and family pride,” Kay says, “family stories teach the faith, ethics, and values of a family. Our faith stories help us to see how God has worked in the family story and brought us to where we are today.
"They link us to the good and saintly people who have been part of the family chain, and these people provide models for newer generations. Children need heroes with whom to identify, and they are greatly enriched if [those heroes] can be in their own families.”
“And it is the actions of grandparents that show their grandchildren how to be good citizens and witnesses to the faith,” says Deacon Gary.
“They are ultimately models for aging—not only to their grandchildren, but also to their children.”