National Grandparents Day, celebrated this year on September 9th, is a great time to honor members of the older generation who do so much for the younger members of the family. And the benefits go both ways. The old saying, “They keep me feeling young,” is backed up by solid research showing that grandchildren motivate the older generation to be more active and engaged. Grandparent-grandchild relationships also offer powerful mental health benefits, reducing depression and promoting a sense of well-being.
Today’s grandparents are more involved in their grandchildren’s lives than ever. A recent U.S. Census report found that 10 percent of today’s 65 million grandparents live with their grandchildren—sometimes as part of a “sandwich generation” household that includes the children’s parents, and sometimes in a household where the grandparents are raising the grandchildren.
Even the 90 percent of grandparents who don’t live with their grandkids tend to be quite involved, providing child care, financial support and guidance. When asked why they decided to retire from their paid jobs, many seniors list “wanting to spend more time with grandchildren” as a top factor. After retirement, many seniors relocate to be closer to the grandkids. And those who live far away are keeping in regular touch between personal visits with phone calls, Skype and Facebook.
Given the many benefits grandparents and grandchildren have to offer each other, it makes sense for families to keep the generations as safe and healthy as possible. Here are some steps they can take:
1. “Grandchild-proof” the home. When very young children visit grandparents, home safety is just as important as in their own home. If you’ll be babysitting, it goes without saying that you’ll need to remove hazards and add safety features—but even if preschoolers and toddlers are accompanied by Mom and Dad, it’s a good idea to have the parents do a home inspection with you. Follow their advice about removing small objects that could be a choking hazard, securing doors and stairways, and remedying any other potential dangers that they spot.
2. Store medications safely. Every year thousands of children are rushed to the emergency room after ingesting an adult’s medications. Many seniors take multiple medications that could be very dangerous for children—and many seniors also are in the habit of leaving those drugs out on the counter. Store medicines where children can’t see or reach them—preferably in childproof containers.
3. Get a child car seat. If you will be transporting your grandchildren, be sure your car is equipped with an approved car seat or the appropriate booster seat for the child’s age. This isn’t an item to purchase at a garage sale; the seat should meet current safety standards. (Read more about car seats on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s consumer site.)
4. Be sure your immunizations are up to date. Many seniors fail to get the recommended vaccines, putting themselves at risk for serious complications from a number of illnesses. Remember that skipping your shots also can put your grandchildren at risk. For example, if there is going to be a new baby in the family, be sure you’ve been vaccinated against pertussis (whooping cough) at least two weeks before you visit. Parents today are advised to avoid having unvaccinated people around until the baby is old enough to be immunized—at six months of age, which is a long time to wait to meet a grandchild!
5. Learn good body mechanics. Who doesn’t love to hold a baby? But lifting a toddler from the car seat or crib, leaning over to help a child build a tower of blocks on the floor, or carrying a child on your hip can lead to a backache, knee pain or worse. Learn the correct way to lift and carry a child. Ask your doctor about exercises to strengthen your abdominal, back and hip muscles. And while it’s a joy to play on the floor with a small child, grandparents may want to invest in a low table to bring the action up to a more comfortable level.
6. Set a healthy example for grandchildren. If protecting your own health isn’t motivation enough to make healthy lifestyle improvements, consider that you’re serving as a role model for grandkids. If you smoke, quit. Serve healthy meals and snacks. Make fresh produce, whole grains and healthy fats a larger portion of your diet. When your grandchildren are all grown up and waxing nostalgic about Grandma’s cooking, maybe it will be your whole-grain peach crumble they’ll remember, not just your chocolate nut fudge!
7. Be active together. As much as you are able, get some exercise with grandchildren. Rather than sitting on the couch watching cartoons with them, go out for a walk or to a playground. How about a trip to the zoo? If you’re up to it, take babies for a stroller ride around the neighborhood. (As a bonus, these outings provide a fine opportunity to show off the cutest grandchildren in the world to your neighbors!)
8. If you’re a custodial grandparent, be sure to learn about resources to help you. Today, 2.7 million grandparents are raising their grandchildren because the children’s parents are unable to do so. Researchers say this can put grandparents’ health in jeopardy, though these grandparents also enjoy certain health benefits. Grandparents raising grandchildren shouldn’t—and needn’t—go it alone. Talk to your local Area Agency on Aging about support that is available in your community. AARP offers a good overview for these GrandFamilies.
9. Practice “grandparent-proofing,” too. Where little children go, clutter tends to follow! Whether at a grandparent’s house or at the child’s home, be alert for toys and baby gear left out that could cause a senior to fall. Assist with opening and closing baby gates on stairs if necessary, and if a grandparent or other older adult is unsteady on their feet, caution older children to walk, not run. Be watchful for and supervise toddlers who might be underfoot.
10. Remember: No matter what their physical or cognitive challenges, grandparents need to feel useful. When an elder is dealing with mobility challenges or memory problems, family often step in more and more to help. “You took care of me, now it’s my turn,” they say. But this “new normal” in the balance of care can cause depression for seniors. Presenting her research at a meeting of the American Sociological Society, Boston College sociology professor Sara Moorman said, “There’s a saying, ‘It’s better to give than to receive.’ Our results support that folk wisdom—if a grandparent gets help, but can’t give it, he or she feels badly. Most of us have been raised to be solicitous and to take care of older people’s every need. But all people benefit from feeling needed, worthwhile and independent.” She offered an example that will be familiar to many grandchildren: “Let Granddad write you that check on your birthday, even if he’s on Social Security and you’ve held a real job for years now.”