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6 factors that influence how grandparents stay connected with grandchildren

Q. I am an 80-year-old widow and love my only granddaughter who is 13 years old. The problem is that I don’t get to see her that often although she and her parents live just one and a half hours away. When she was a baby and toddler, the situation was different. When I hear of grandparents talking about the wonderful times they are having with their grandchildren, I feel sad and perhaps a bit envious. Is this unusual? Any suggestions on how I can change the situation? D.S.

Feeling sad and a sense of loss is understandable. The phrase “the years go by so quickly” is one we often hear particularly as we get older. And as we age, those family and grandparent relationships become more important. One often may think, will I be here for the special birthdays, high school graduation, meet the new boyfriend and perhaps even be around for a wedding? With age, we know about the fixed amount of time on this planet. Having no idea about the length, we want to do our best to savor those relationships.

Then reality hits. That beautiful grandchild is becoming more independent and more interested in his or her friends. Such distancing from grandparents is not unusual and varies from child to child. Susan Adcox, an author who focuses on grandparents, writes that “generally, children at around age 10 and into their teen years” begin to drift away from their grandparents. At the same time, the world of grandparents often shrinks, leaving a large empty space. Peers and relatives die, move away or have serious health problems. So often, children and grandchildren fill that void.

Researchers have found that there are some patterns that help us understand why some grandparents are closer to their grandchildren than others. Let’s explore those patterns for this week and next week we’ll share some things we can do to enhance that special grandparent-grandchild relationship.

Social psychologists Merril Silverstein and the late Vern L. Bengtson and others studied something called “intergenerational solidarity.” They identified six factors that influence intergenerational closeness. Perhaps by understanding these factors, one may be able to enhance those special relationships. However, know that some factors are out of our control; others are not.

Living close-by: Physical proximity to children is the strongest predictor of a close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren. If distance is an issue, technology can play a role. Grandparents can use FaceTime, Skype or other video chat platforms. Texts are popular with grandchildren if not overused.

Frequent visits: Grandparents who have close relationships with their grandchildren stay in frequent contact with them. However, parents’ divorce can make this more difficult. Since maternal mothers more often have physical custody, maternal grandparents typically have more opportunities to be with their grandchildren.

The grandparent family role: If a grandparent has played a specific role in the family such as taking care of the grandchild or even becoming a surrogate parent, there is a greater opportunity to bond. Research indicates that just the presence of grandparents is more important than the role they play in the family.

Expectations from the family: Families that expect a strong relationship between generations are more likely to have them. That expectation begins early in the lives of grandchildren, a time when they are taught that being part of a family means shared obligations and caring.

Emotional bonding: Typically, children are closest to their parents and siblings. Grandparents come next. Here’s the rub. As the children grow, their circle of activities and relationships also grow and those loving grandparents can be displaced. The good news is that early emotional bonds with grandchildren can survive even when changes occur with both generations.

A consensus on values: Generations often have different values. Grandparents may be shocked or even disapprove of the grandchild’s hairstyle, activities or even friends. A generation gap often occurs when grandparents lack what is called “social tolerance.” Grandparents need to show that they are willing to listen to their grandchildren. That goes a long way.

Thank you, D.S., for your important question. Next week we’ll offer some practical tips that will enhance that special intergenerational relationship and bond. Stay well and know kindness, more than ever, is everything.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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