Sunday is National Grandparents Day, and the images conjured up about the occasion often are straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting: a doting grandma or grandpa with a devoted, preschool grandchild. But as people live longer, healthier lives, there's a new reality. More and more, the grandchild is all grown up.
The dynamic between grandparents and their adult grandchildren is starting to garner interest from sociologists. Until recently, most research on the grandparent-grandchildren relationship focused on grandparents who were thrust into the role of raising young grandchildren. A new study looks exclusively at the relationship between grandparents and adult grandchildren and concluded the connection can have enormous psychological benefits for both generations.
"We speculate that it's because they're bonding with each other and giving social support," says Sara Moorman, an assistant professor at Boston College's Department of Sociology and Institute on Aging. Moorman's study was presented at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in August.
The study used existing data of 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren collected between 1985 and 2004. At the midpoint of the data, the average grandparent was 77 and the grandchild was 31.
Moorman found that grandparents who both gave and received "tangible" support exhibited fewer signs of depression. Moorman says tangible support can take many forms. For grandparents, it could mean giving money. For grandkids, it could mean spending time and helping with tasks. "Things like changing a lightbulb, household chores, those sorts of things," she says. The grandparents who did the best emotionally both gave and received tangible support.
Interestingly, grandparents who exhibited the most signs of depression received tangible support from their grandchildren but did not give any in return. "Grandparents live by a norm where they expect to be the one who's giving to the grandchild, even though the grandchild is an adult," Moorman says. "Having that reversed is threatening."
One big take-away from the study: Adult grandkids should gladly accept support from their grandparents. But if taking money makes the grandchildren feel uncomfortable, ask the grandparents for sage advice instead. For far-flung families, even talking with a grandparent on the phone or connecting via social networking can be beneficial.
For many grandparents, relating to an adult grandchild forges a bond few thought they would ever have. "It's a real historically new and special thing to be able to have an adult relationship with a grandchild," Moorman says.