We expect the later stage of life to be enjoyable and carefree; that’s why they’re called the golden years. Without the demands of work, and with children grown and out of the house, the presumption is that seniors fill their days as they please and are able to steer clear of stress.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Grandparents face challenges specific to this chapter in their lives, such as living on a fixed income or caring for grandchildren, as well as the perennial ups and downs of family relationships and the possibility of age-related health conditions.
HuffPost spoke with therapists about the issues that grandparents bring up most in therapy. Here we share their suggestions for avoiding or resolving them.
Caregiving And Financial Contributions
With the cost of child care averaging 27% of family income, parents are frequently turning to grandparents to carry part of the load. Grandparents may find themselves caring for grandchildren part time or even full time. They may also be asked to help families meet the costs of child care or preschool, often their biggest household expenses.
“For some grandparents, they share with me that they are offering a lot of care, support or gifts (financial or otherwise) to grandchildren without much recognition or appreciation from the grandchildren’s parents, ” Regina Koepp, a clinical geropsychologist and founder of the Center for Mental Health & Aging, told HuffPost.
Even grandparents living on limited incomes feel the pull of supporting their children and grandchildren, sometimes at the expense of their own needs or desires.
“I’ve worked with some grandparents caught in the dilemma between providing financial support for their progeny versus going on a bucket list trip or even something more practical like putting off house repairs,” Koepp said.
Proactive, honest communication is the key to avoiding conflicts and hurt feelings. For financial requests, family members should explain their need and ask how much, if anything, a grandparent feels able to contribute. Agree on the amount of the gift, how often it will be made and to whom. (There may be tax advantages for a grandparent who makes tuition payments directly to a preschool, for example.) Discuss how long you will need these payments so that grandparents can manage their budgets.
If a grandparent is providing child care, the discussion will need to be thorough and ongoing. What are your family’s needs? What can a grandparent realistically provide, in the short or long term? What hours are they willing and able to take on this responsibility? Will you compensate them in any way or cover child-related expenses that may arise? Where will the care take place: your home or theirs? What are your ground rules regarding food, screen time, sleep and more?
Even if you’re not paying them for the care they provide, don’t forget about incidental expenses, which may add up fast.
“The most obvious stressor that the grandparents report is financial. Because many grandparents are on a fixed income, the idea of having to be responsible financially for one or more grandchildren, whether part of the day, week or for an extended amount of time, can be incredibly stressful,” Nona Kelly, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Tennessee, told HuffPost.
All of us worry more about health problems as we grow older. For grandparents who have taken on child care responsibilities, however, these fears may be amplified.
“I’ve worked with some grandparents who have an instrumental role in caring for grandchildren and when diagnosed with a new medical problem begin to consider how best to support their grandchildren when they are no longer able to care for them,” Koepp said. “This can be very painful for the grandparent and family as a whole.”
Therapy may be helpful to the family as they reorient their lives.
Lack Of Connection
Even if grandparents are spending significant time with grandchildren while caring for them, building strong intergenerational relationships can take extra effort.
Kelly referred to this as the “struggle of the grandparents understanding the culture of the grandchildren.”
To bridge these gaps, Kelly said, “it would be helpful for all [family members] to learn how to appreciate each generation’s culture.” This means that each family member should “learn about each person in the family as an individual and interact on their level as much as possible.”
In addition to chauffeuring your child between activities and providing snacks, perhaps a grandparent and grandchild can learn a new game, work in the garden, cook together or make an art project. These kinds of activities will provide opportunities for connection.
“Quality time and being open to new learning experiences can bring a family much closer,” she added.
When grandchildren spend time with grandparents without their parents being present, “this allows for the development of a unique bond and helps each dyad create their own set of shared experiences and memories,” Koepp said.
These won’t replace group experiences, of course. As far as activities involving the whole family, Koepp suggested such things as “family meals, game nights or storytelling sessions where grandparents can share traditions, experiences and wisdom.”
In the chaos of daily life, it’s easy to forget to tell a grandparent just how much their help and their presence mean to your family.
“There’s an ageist phenomenon that ... leaves older adults feeling largely invisible and irrelevant, even when they are making significant contributions in the family. It can help for the parent to show appreciation for the grandparents’ role in the family by acknowledging their contributions, wisdom and the importance of their legacy,” Koepp said.
On the other hand, parents sometimes find themselves feeling jealous about the special bond that a grandparent and grandchild share, particularly if the relationship looks very different from the one they had with their parent growing up.
“Sometimes as closer bonds are formed between grandparents and grandchildren, the parents become resentful toward the grandparents. This can negatively affect the entire family dynamic,” Kelly said.
She suggested using open communication and family therapy, if necessary, to confront this issue.
Tips For Building Healthy Relationships With Grandparents
Koepp offered some additional thoughts about fostering strong relationships with grandparents.
Acknowledge Their Perspective
Whether you’re dealing with your own parent or an in-law, it can take some work to set aside past parent-child dynamics and interact as adults who bring experience and wisdom to the task of child rearing.
“The great thing about typical parent/grandparent relationships is that it’s two adults in relationship with two unique perspectives,” Koepp said.
You’ll need to make a conscious effort to see things from their point of view. “Trying to see where the other person is coming from is key in open and healthy communication,” Koepp explained.
Sometimes grandparents hold back from mentioning concerns they have about the way their child is parenting a grandchild.
“The grandparent might worry if commenting on the dynamic (or intervening) will have the effect of pushing them out of the family altogether, effectively alienating them,” Koepp said.
Instead, you might openly ask for a grandparent’s thoughts about a parenting challenge, making it clear that you are truly interested in their perspective. You may find their thoughts and experience helpful.
Approach Challenges As A Team
Everyone wants what’s best for grandchildren and the family as a whole — but sometimes we all need a reminder.
“At times, I help grandparents and parents to identify their shared goal and help them to navigate working together as a team to meet that goal. When the parent and grandparent get off track, it helps to have someone there to remind them: ‘What would you do if you were on the same team?’” Koepp said.
Discuss And Respect Boundaries
It’s critical for grandparents and parents to discuss boundaries and respect them. These might include what hours grandparents are available for child care, any activities they aren’t comfortable doing with grandchildren or limits that parents want enforced around snacks, screen time or bedtime routines.
“Open discussions about everyone’s needs and comfort levels can prevent misunderstandings and foster a sense of mutual respect,” Koepp said.