Firstly, lest I be lynched by a mob of exhausted grandparents, this piece is not to be used as an excuse to drop your smallies to your parents on a permanent basis while you crawl into bed...
Rather, it is about highlighting the benefits of bonds between kids and their grandparents, or just the older generation in general.
These days, thanks to a better diet, better medical care, and better education, we have lots of active older people to interact with.
In fact, there are pretty consistent research findings when it comes to the benefits for both generations when they have regular good quality access to each other.
Hardly surprising, I know - but I do love when research confirms a suspicion! Although my colleagues would surely (and probably correctly) call that classic confirmation bias.
Most recently, a 2017 study found that custodial grand-parenting is associated with a 37% reduction in mortality hazard as contrasted to “absent” grand-parenting or grand-parenting where there is no care-giving role.
These effects were also found amongst elderly people who weren’t even grandparents, or who were, in fact, childfree but who had regular contact with children.
Interesting isn't it?
Another piece of research in 2016 concluded that regular contact with grandchildren might enhance the physical, emotional and cognitive well being of the grandparents. That's a lot of boxes ticked.
A closer look at these boxes:
Any grandparent or elderly person who has contact with children will likely tell you that they move a lot more than their more sedentary peers who aren’t chasing, playing with or simply cuddling cute little people.
I've observed it myself in my own family, and I've observed it in nursing homes too. The moment a child appears, old faces take on a new light. Old bodies move faster, there is more laughter, more noise - more joy. How can this not be life-affirming and enhancing?!
The benefits to physical health are obvious - our bodies are built to move, it’s good for ageing joints and hearts to play and chase and lift and dance.
Physical movement and exercise also have well-established links to emotional wellbeing and cognitive health - with problem-solving ability and mood being two of the main things to benefit almost immediately from increased exercise.
And having smallies around, as you well know, is definitely exercise.
Research also tells us that the loneliness and lost sense of purpose that older people inevitably experience are to some degree mitigated by having contact with children and younger people.
This makes sense - as we age, our colleagues are no longer near us, we have less contact with other people, our roles change significantly and many of us experience this as grief.
I see, every week, how similar ageing is to the grieving process because there are so many losses. Loss of health, relationships, work, independence, energy, and money.
But it's not just older people who benefit, children also reap the rewards when it comes to bringing the older and younger generation together.
Stanford University hosted a “Pass it On” conference four years ago, and from that came a really interesting 56-page document illustrating clear benefits to both children and old people (related or not!) of good quality contact with each other. So it really does work both ways!
Within the family context the benefits are specific:
- children learn about family history
- they develop a strong sense of identity
- they develop a sense of connection, belonging and attachment.
Related or not, among the psycho-social benefits of good quality contact for the kids are:
- active listening
- critical thinking
- awareness of difference
- and the enjoyment and feeling of 'mastery' of showing older people how new things work.
It’s part of developing a sense of worth, of expertise, and the act of that teaching benefits both generations!
Our society depends on these qualities and skills in order to run well. Some of the best fun I've had - and the best quality contact - has been when I've asked children to show me how something works (Major point to note - getting kids to teach you how to use tech is a great way of keeping them safe online too - win-win!).
And if you were lucky enough to have an older adult in your childhood, I'm willing to bet you have warm memories of being shown how to use something, as well as showing. I hope you have those memories - I'm very lucky that I have some of my own popping into my head now as I type.
Laura L. Carstensen, a Stanford psychologist recently said that “it’s surprising to people when you say something like 'the number of older people in the world is the only natural resource that’s actually growing'.”
As the number of older people on our communities continues to rise, we would be wise to access this resource - we all have so much to learn from each other!