More Meat in The Middle

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"Soon, mom!" The message is from my daughter, who is expecting her second child. The next morning I am sitting in the kitchen with my almost-3-year-old granddaughter while her 30-something mommy is at the hospital giving birth to her sister. Her daddy has gone to the hospital, too, leaving her with her 60-something grandmother. We read a lot of stories and eat a lot of peanut butter.

Eventually, Mommy and Daddy come home with the baby, and life settles down to marginally normal. I then go and visit my 90-something stepmother, who is getting ready to plant her garden.

We are a four-generation family: children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. This is the New Normal Family. Because people are living longer and are healthier at older ages, the family is expanding its ranks -- redefining roles and responsibilities across the life span.

So don't talk to me about the collapse of the family. To listen to the rhetoric on family and family values, you'd think the family was on the verge of extinction. It's not. In fact, I believe that longevity is strengthening the American family and improving the national environment for raising children -- and nurturing the frail of any age.

To be sure, family structure has changed over the last 50 years. Immediate family size has shrunk as people have fewer children. Birth rates remain low, barely at replacement level. Couples are starting families at later ages -- the mean age for women at first birth is 25. Marriage rates have declined and divorce rates remain significant.

These trends can lead to ominous headlines that the traditional family structure is crumbling. Where are the adults in the family to help raise the children and tend the sick? Answer: men and women in the grandparent zone.

Instead of one "sandwich" generation to take care of dependent children and frail older relatives, there are now two vigorous generations in the middle -- young parents in their twenties, thirties and forties, and healthy grandparents in their fifties, sixties and seventies.

Instead of expanding horizontally, the family is expanding vertically with more generations. Instead of a three-tier triangle, with many children at the bottom and very few older relatives at the top, the family now resembles more of a four-tier rectangle.

"This is changing the way we look at families -- changing the way we look at generations," says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington organization that promotes intergenerational public policies. "You used to hear people saying: 'I never knew my grandparents.' Now you hear: 'I know my grandparents and great-grandparents.' "

The trouble with the debate over family values is that pundits and policymakers pay little attention to the extended generational family.

For starters, the Census Bureau does not collect data on great-grandparents -- even though the fastest growth in the population is among people over 85.

It collects very limited data on grandparents. It surveys only those grandparents who live in the household with grandchildren -- and fewer than 6 percent of children actually live with a grandparent.

Left out of the official count is the rest of us. Yet a new government study of nearly 40,000 older men and women who live independently shows how vigorous grandparents are likely to be. Overall, only one in five adults aged 55 to 64 were found to be in "fair or poor health," according to the study, published last month by the National Center for Health Statistics. Only one-third of those over 85 were considered to be in poor health.

To be sure, chronic diseases and disabilities are significant and increase with age, especially for those who are poor or near-poor and who depend on public health programs. But the majority in the survey has good health status.

What kind of family life do these older Americans have? The study found that more than half of those 55 to 64 get regular exercise. Well, how many are involved with grandchildren? Or mentor youngsters in the community?

Other studies hint at the importance of grandparents. An AARP survey found that more than 80 percent of grandparents are in at least monthly contact with their grandchildren. Roughly a quarter provide essential child care. All in all, an estimated 60 million Americans are grandparents. That's a critical mass to break into the family debate. ยท

Comments: mytime@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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