SENIOR POWER: Grandparenting is a Gerund… and a Lot More

By Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday October 04, 2013 - 04:49:00 PM

Many of today’s grandparents want to define for themselves their specific relationship with their grandchildren. Few want to baby-sit regularly or be responsible for child care. Some enjoy taking care of their grandchildren. Most women resist the stereotype of the doormat grandmother -- always there when anyone needs her but otherwise not in the way. 

In California, the high cost of raising a child challenges the state's most vulnerable caregivers—grandparents. A recent study found grandmothers who raise their grandchildren struggle with depression, while another study about the same time reported that closeness between grandparents and adult grandchildren may ease depression! It has been suggested that the health cost slowdown is great for grandparents, but even with Medicare coverage, American retirees over age 65 spend more on health care than on food.  

Arab American elders are facing the rest of their lives alone, says Mohamad Ozeir (New America Media, April 21, 2013). Isolation and neglect describe their current condition-- most emigrated from places where aging is not an “issue” [problem.] Life expectancy in many Arab countries is at best only a couple of years more than the average retirement age in the United States. Longevity for Arabs in the United States is about two years shorter than that of non-Arabs, partly because Arab elders have high levels of chronic illness. Government-subsidized residential centers such as the Freda Centers in Michigan address part of elders’ needs while also presenting new challenges. For example, the high illiteracy rate among Arab American elders, especially women, makes understanding the rules and communicating with senior developments managements and providers very difficult. Some elders violate rules by frequently babysitting their grandchildren; others cook and do laundry for their children. Many of the elders are in poor health and have inadequate treatment for their ailments because they lack information about health services or preventive care. The salient issue [problem] is social isolation, fed by infrequent visits from loved ones and feelings of guilt for being away from their families. Intensifying this problem is the tendency to view isolation as a normal stage of aging. 

In Great Britain, a new study contends that grandparents who are “carers” need time off. Elderly people living alone are being urged to take in a “lodger” to help with household chores and enable them to remain in their own homes as long as possible. (Daily Telegraph [London], August 30, 2013).  

In Germany, emigrant nursing home residents is a controversial movement. The “export Grandma” trend has been denounced as “gerontologic colonialism” compared to nations exporting their trash. Families respond that a lack of affordable quality care at home makes it their best option in order to provide a dignified old age for elderly parents -- and save money. One in five Germans would now consider going abroad for a nursing home (not for themselves, doubtless,) according to a survey by pollster TNS Emnid. “… when your parents get older, send them to Poland,” says a 66-year-old daughter. Her mother’s new home is in a Polish ski resort. The daughter chose the nursing home sight unseen after studying its website and meeting with a nursing-home placement broker . The trade-off for both mother and daughter, who used to live only a two-minute walk apart, is the 350 miles separating them. The owners say half the residents will soon be Germans, who have state-mandated long-term care insurance through a nearly 20-year-old program, a benefit out of the reach of most people outside Europe, including the United States. Not every Polish nursing home advertising in German on the Web is what it seems. However, one, a small residence near the German border, promises rooms that sleep four for an unusually low price of 400 euros per month, with an on-site nurse and mushroom hunting excursions. Read Naomi Kresge’s report Grandma Export Exposes German Struggle With Care; German Grandmas Sent to Poland as Costs Converge," adapted here with permission from Sept. 15, 2013 Bloomberg Newsletter. 


Grandpa, A Young Man Grown Old is a book by Harriet Langsam Sobol with photographs by Patricia Agre. Don’t let the facts that it’s 33 years old and in the public library children’s collection deter you. It’s a good book. Seventeen-year old granddaughter Karen’s views of her grandfather, Morris Kaye (79 at the time) are juxtaposed with his descriptions of his life. A widower, he lives alone in the Westchester County home he once shared and commutes to work. He writes “My office is directly across from the main branch of the New York Public Library so I can go there as much as I want to…When I was a young boy, the books that I read opened the walls of my life. There was a library in my neighborhood of Manhattan called the Seward Park Branch.”  

The Flat opens with the motion picture’s director and members of his family gathered in their grandmother’s apartment after her death. They are there in order to clear out the contents. Fifty-year old Arnon Goldfinger soon finds various items that reveal an astonishing chapter in the family's history that had been kept hidden for decades— their grandparents’ close friendship with a Nazi couple. Goldfinger’s first full length film, The Komediant, released in 1999, was an award-winning documentary about a family of Yiddish vaudeville artists and the history of the Yiddish theater. The Flat is his second full length film, in 2011, an Israeli- German coproduction.  


Marion Lois Ward was nineteen when she was employed to teach in a rural Vermont grammar school and met the man whose remembrance still evoked pleasure for her when I knew her many years later. He was a farmer, big and attractive to women, but with a mean disposition and enemies. There were to be separations and divorces among their thirteen children who, despite poverty, foster homes, epidemics and fires, made it to adulthood.  

Marion Ward Wheeler was twenty-two years old in 1892, when she bore her first son, my father. The autumn of the year that he was fourteen years old and the harvest was in, the barn was full, ready for the long cold winter. When his father’s enemies set fire to it, the depressed patriarch swilled down poison, leaving the oldest son to help his mother on the manless farm.  

Through the years, Grandma Wheeler remained accessible to her sons’ former wives and their children, although my visits were restricted to times when my father and his latest wife were not expected. More than a half-century later, my grandmother and I would sit together and talk during my visits to Vermont. I sensed that I was special, at least to her, because I was his child as well as his only child. Most of my father’s sisters seemed to accept my presence for Grandma’s sake. Most of his brothers made it clear by sullen silence, glaring or absence that they did not. 

In winter, Grandma would be in her rocking chair in the warm kitchen, and in summer, on the porch. The year I was fourteen I visited at Christmas. A big black cook stove in the kitchen and a potbelly in the living-dining room heated the rural house. The double bed in the unheated, upstairs bedroom was warmed before I jumped in. I thought about my father sleeping in this bed during his visits. That he was not alone hadn’t occurred to me. 

Summer visitors and city folk with houses in the area dropped in to use the telephone, get their mail, and gush over the country folk. Grandma lived with her youngest daughter whose handsome hardworking husband was devoted to her. One afternoon during that winter visit my grandmother was alone with several “state” foster children and me. She must have been around seventy-five years old at the time, in good health except for rheumatic knees that required a cane. I was the cause of their piling too much wood into the potbelly stove. When the stovepipe caught fire, she calmly stood up and took over, raising her raspy voice slightly but firmly. A neighbor knew that if Grandma Wheeler sent word, it meant now. He blew in, ran upstairs, and tore open the floorboards and cleaned out the smoldering mice nests snuggled up against the warm chimney. That evening she arranged a sugaring-off party for my benefit.  

As an adult, I continued to visit when I could, welcomed perhaps because I came from a distance to visit Grandma. In 1957, I drove to Vermont for her eighty-seventh birthday. She and I were sitting together on the porch when a man in an old-fashioned horse and buggy drove by on the narrow dirt road, and she said wistfully “Your grandfather courted me in a buggy like that.”  

Marion Lois Ward Wheeler’s reputation as a strong, caring woman had grown over the years. I knew the final time I visited would be the last, and I tried not to cry when I was leaving. I slipped the aunt with whom she lived a note asking that she let me know when the time came. I couldn’t say it. To earn money in ways country women could, these two had managed the United States Post Office in the converted living room. They had boarded the “summer minister” in the spare bedroom. My aunt – the child who was six months old at the time of her father’s death – had driven the school bus and tended store. Together they cared for “state” foster children. More than fifty children had called my aunt mama and my grandmother grandma, been kissed good night every night, and received an occasional slap. Most stayed until they reached age sixteen, when the state required them to leave the system. There might also be one or two grandchildren in residence because their parents were for some reason unable to care for them.  

My grandmother was a matriarch so well known that her funeral in 1963 drew crowds that filled the Grange Hall in the isolated rural community. A friend drove me up from New York. Cars and other vehicles were parked everywhere on the unpaved road and in the dooryard. Country style, a member of the Attending Sheriff’s Posse approached my friend about the car in which we had been seen arriving: a tire was low… would we like him to fix it? After we were bedded down in the big bed upstairs, my aunt drove alone in a pickup truck through the stark rural darkness, up the narrow, winding dirt Stage Road to the remote cemetery at the top of the hill to be alone once more with her mother. 

Adapted from The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually; A Memoir. Inkwater Press, 2013.