Great granny to the rescue! Time was when most of us never met our great-grandparents… But as we live (and work) longer they're filling the childcare gap
Last updated at 11:35 PM on 15th February 2012
A six-year-old boy and an older lady run as fast as they can across the Great Yarmouth sands, whooping and laughing as they race over a makeshift finishing line.
‘I beat you again!’ the little boy cries, as the elderly woman scoops him lovingly into her arms and twirls him round.
It’s a typical scene on many a British summer beach — gran and grandad taking their grandchildren out for the day while the parents are hard at work.
Evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a great-grandparenting boom
Except that the lady with Harry is
actually his great-grandmother, and she is the one helping out with day
trips because Harry’s grandparents are still at work, too. When Harry’s
mum, Becky, needs help with her two children, she calls on her
80-year-old grandmother, Patricia Smart.
These days, that’s not at all unusual. In fact, all the evidence suggests that we are in the midst of a great-grandparenting boom. I edit Yours, a magazine whose readers still hand-write letters.
Some 64 per cent of them are grandparents, so we know that stories on this subject will elicit a lively response. If between 20 and 30 readers make contact, we know we’ve struck a chord.
So when nearly 200 great-grandmothers responded to a request from a soon-to-be great-grandmother asking for suggestions on what to call herself, I knew we were onto something big.
Isolated trend If the Duchess of Cambridge was to have a baby this year Prince Charles would be a great-grandfather at a minimum age of 94
Recent surveys have revealed the
degree to which families rely on the valued support of grandparents —
including one by my own magazine which found 48 per cent of them help
with childminding for at least 20 hours a week, spending an average
50,352 of their own money per grandchild over their lifetime.
I checked our survey statistics, I discovered that nearly a fifth of
those grandparents were also great-grandparents. And they can’t believe
their luck. Not only do they have the time and energy to enjoy their great-grandchildren, they also find they are a much-needed resource in the modern family, where many grandparents are still going out to work.
A modern great-grandparent is often her great-grandchild’s fun best friend. Patricia Smart is typical. She has six great-grandchildren, ranging from a newborn to a seven-year-old. Patricia, from Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, can’t remember her own great-grandmother, yet she is still playing an active role in family life and regularly babysits for her granddaughter Becky’s children, who live near her.
When you’re a grandmother, you often
worry about being seen as interfering. But as a great- grandmother,
‘My husband and I are still very active and take the children on days out in the summer, which is wonderful,’ says Patricia. ‘If
the children come to see us, we get the toys out of the cupboard and I
get down on the floor to play with them. My husband, who’s 80, and I
love it — we’re both young at heart. They keep us young, chatting about
granddaughter Becky, 32, who works some evenings and weekends in a
clothes shop, confirms that Patricia plays a key role in family life.
She explains: ‘My parents work full-time, so my grandparents can help me
out during the day if I need to leave four-year-old Grace with them to
go to an event at Harry’s primary school.
‘My grandmother also helps when Grace is ill, and with general babysitting. It’s great that I can leave Grace with my grandparents. I never have to worry.’ Of course, the reason for this new generation of active and involved great-grandparents is longevity. The average life expectancy of a woman in this country is now 82.3 years: in 1980 it was 76, and a century ago it was just 49.
We are living longer and, significantly, we are also staying healthier for longer — which means four-generation families could one day become the norm. Indeed, U.S. academic Kenneth Wachter estimates that by 2030 more than 70 per cent of eight-year-olds are likely to have a living great-grandparent.
However, a second burgeoning trend could stop the advent of the four-generation family in its tracks, and that’s late motherhood. In 1966, the average British woman had her first baby at 24. That figure now stands at 29.7 years. The current crop of grandparents from the baby-boomer generation had their children young, but their own children aren’t following the same trend.
Many baby-boomers are becoming grandparents in their 50s or early 60s
Those baby-boomers are becoming grandparents in their 50s or early 60s, with their own parents still alive, but this could turn out to be an isolated trend. Take the Royal Family. The Queen had Prince Charles at 22 and became a grandmother to Peter Phillips at 61, then a great-grandmother to Savannah Phillips at 84.
By contrast, if the Duchess of Cambridge were to have a baby this year, current average statistics would put her father-in-law Charles at a minimum of 94, if and when he becomes a great-grandfather. The second half of the 20th century was all about the shrinking size of the family unit, but with the extended family on the rise again, many great-grandmothers are counting their blessings. Barbara Ross has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren all under five, with two on the way.
Barbara, 74 from West Kirby on The Wirral, realises she living through what academics call ‘a unique demographic window’.
‘Did I ever think I’d be in a four-generation family No way,’ she says. ‘Just the other week we went out to buy some new shoes for five-year-old Jack, and there were four generations of us there. It was lovely. I can barely remember my grandparents. Both my grandmothers died before I was born, and we looked up to my grandfathers but never said a word to them unless we were spoken to.’
Barbara sees Jack twice a week, three-year-old Callum on Sundays, and all of her great-grandchildren at least once a week. She says: ‘The best thing about being a great-gran is that it keeps you young. I enjoy the rough and tumble going on around me, even though my arthritis means I can’t take part in it.
‘I love the house being filled with noise and laughter. My daughter works, so if my great-grandchildren need taking to appointments or looking after during the day, it’s me they phone and I’m happy to help.’
The childminding help provided by great-grandmothers like Barbara and Patricia is likely to become even more important to society in the coming years. By November 2018, the age at which women can claim their state pension will rise to 65. That means grandmothers will need to keep working for longer, and will be less available to provide free childminding. Retired but active great-grandmothers will assume that role.
Great-grandparents also provide a valuable insight into the past. The 75-plus generation is the last with clear memories of World World II, providing a living link to a momentous chapter in history.
Norma Peace, 77, from Newhaven, East Sussex, treasures the time she spends with her five great-grandchildren. She says: ‘I have a lovely relationship with the eldest, Danielle, who’s 15. I was quite ill last year, and she made a six-mile train journey on her own to help clean for me. She likes to come and visit, and we sit and chat together — it’s lovely when they get to an age to hold a conversation with you.’
Elizabeth Simpson’s seven-year-old great-granddaughter Ellie Faith is the only surviving daughter of a beloved granddaughter-in-law who died in a car crash four years ago. Elizabeth, 73, from Whitehaven, Cumbria, says: ‘When my husband died two years ago, Ellie helped me through that sad time.
‘I look after her sometimes in the holidays. We go shopping, and she takes great delight in advising me on which clothes suit me. She loves keeping me up-to-date with modern trends, and as I only live two minutes down the road I’m also a friend who’s always happy to have fun at the drop of a hat — and buy chocolate fudge cake.
‘Ellie comes for sleep-overs and I tell her stories about how life was when I was a girl. When she heard I lived in a house with no bathroom and an outside toilet, she was incredulous. I’m a singing teacher, too, so I give her lessons. Ellie and I being so close means there’s an extra layer of family love. She may have lost her mum, but her dad, grandparents and I pull together to make sure Ellie has all the family love she needs.’
Barbara Ross agrees that great-grandmothers enjoy a unique role: ‘It’s as though everyone in the family is aware of how special this time is. When you’re a grandmother, you often worry about being seen as interfering. But as a great- grandmother, anything’s allowed and nobody feels threatened.
‘I keep small packets of sweets for my little ones and I’m allowed to treat them as often I like. It’s all joy — and no worry.’
What remains is the vexed question of what name they should go by. We asked our readers what great-grandmothers are called by their families — and we were entertained by the answers. Apparently the most popular names are G-G, Little Gran, Big Gran, Gran-Gran, Grammy and even Old Gran. But our favourite by far — which is also eminently suitable for this Diamond Jubilee year — is Queen Nanny. Long may the great-grandmother reign . . .
Valery McConnell is the editor of Yours magazine, on sale every fortnight.