Daily Telegraph: Life is so much better with our elders around

From the Daily Telegraph, October 2, 2014

Grandparents are not just free babysitters – they offer us a vital link with the past
Pope Francis, the world’s most popular septuagenarian, held an event at the weekend for thousands of the elderly and their grandchildren, where he said: “A people that doesn’t take care of its grandparents and treat them well is a people with no future.” He’s right, and as a father of three young children who still relies on the elders, I can only say that when it comes to grandparents, my generation doesn’t know it’s been born.

To illustrate how we should treat the elderly, the Pope recalled that as a child in Argentina he was told a story about a family whose grandfather was a frail, messy eater. The father bought a small table so that the old man could sit separately and not get on everyone’s nerves; but, the Pope said, one day this man came home and found one of his sons playing with some wood.

“What are you making?” he asked. “A table,” the son replied. “It’s for you, Dad, when you’re old like grandpa.”
Grandparents are frequently portrayed as needy or a nuisance and a burden, but the reality is often the opposite, and having elders around not only has enormous psychological benefits to children, it also helps the middle generation, too. My grandmothers were very elderly when I was a child and my grandfathers are long dead, so I missed out. But my children are lucky to have four living grandparents, three in good health and two, my in-laws, who live just around the corner.

My father-in-law is the most hands-on, and he looks after our two girls at least one day a week, including an overnight sleepover. My wife and I even took a holiday once and left the children with her parents; the troubling thing, though, is that the longer they stay with their grandparents, the more they like it there. Life is more relaxed, less fraught in their house, and lived at a slower pace that suits both the young and old; they have time to bake cakes together, take the dog for a walk, and roam in the large garden – things that are generally absent to those in the middle third of life for reasons of time and money. In so many ways, pensioners are at a better stage in life to raise children than those who are at the busiest time of their lives.

The grandparents are also far more relaxed about what the children eat and how much television they can watch, and often forget the teeth-brushing regime, a joy for the young ones but a source of mild tension between the grown-ups. My generation is more puritanical about those things, to such an extent that I was rather touched when our five-year-old asked at a friend’s house: “Why is the television on?” How middle class! At her age I would have asked: “Why is it off? Is it broken?”

While my in-laws were never desperate to have grandchildren, I think that we may have given them something emotionally fulfilling in return for the endless free child care and scrounging. And my father-in-law, still handsome and youthful, despite having been born at the tail end of the Second World War, gets plenty of admiring looks from the attractive young north London mums at the school gate, so I hear.

For our part we’ve saved a fortune. According to Age UK, a fifth of grandmothers provide at least 10 hours a week. The charity also estimates the value of gran-care at £7.3 billion a year if the old folk were paid the market rate, rather than the junk currency of emotional blackmail, which is all they get from us.

The only problem with this arrangement is that my generation, which will be forced to work until we are well into our seventies, will be less able to help our children with their own offspring. Which will be a shame. For grandparenting is not just about the practical help or finance. As Pope Francis says, “the elderly are those who transmit history to us… who transmit the faith and give it to us as an inheritance”. Even for those who aren’t religious, grandparents are still a vital link with the past.

Last year we stayed with a couple who have young children the same age as ours. The wife’s mother comes from within a few miles of Pope Francis’s parents in Piedmont, and sat with all the children at the kitchen table showing them how to make gnocchi, the region’s staple. She had been taught the same thing at the feet of her grandparents, who had been born in the 1860s and remembered when Italy was barely a functioning state. They didn’t even speak Italian, but Piedmontese, which is closer to French than it is to the language spoken in Rome. So it was that in 2013, with one simple act, she was able to pass on 150 years’ worth of wisdom to her English-speaking grandchildren.

Far more than financial help, it is this mutual pleasure that the generations can find in each other, that we should all learn to cherish – messy eaters or no. For it is beyond price.

Ed West is the deputy editor of ‘The Catholic Herald’

Read the whole thing


What do you think?