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Mergers and Acquisitions

Retirees Forge New Bonds To Help Family Through Tough Times

By Susan Breitkopf

Linda Dunn currently cares for an infant grandchild, as she did for granddaughter Estella, pictured.

In his latest book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about Roseto, a small town in Pennsylvania populated almost exclusively by immigrants from the same small town in Italy. In the 1950s a physician studied the Roseto townspeople because of one strange fact: Their death rate was 30 percent lower than that of the rest of the country. It was not diet or a propensity for exercise that made them live longer, but their strong bonds and a social structure whereby three generations often lived under one roof. They were so healthy, in part, because their strong network of family support helped them handle the pressures of the modern world.

More and more NEA-Retired members are, in essence, recreating Roseto, reuniting with grown children or aging parents, becoming caretakers, and realizing that together their families are stronger. A number of circumstances are driving the trend, including:

 1. Families brought together by tragedy. In this unfortunate case, the grandparents have stepped in to raise the grandchildren when the parents are unable.

 2. Families brought together by economic uncertainty. More and more, multiple generations are living under one roof because of job losses and increased cost of living.

 3. Grandparents as caregivers. For many retired grandparents, becoming their grandchildren’s secondary caregiver for young children (a.k.a., “granny nanny”) is an attractive option. It means forging a special bond with grandchildren, keeping a hand in teaching, and helping out working children. The United States is currently in the midst of a “granny nanny” boomlet.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in October 2008, a record number of parents are moving in with their adult children, many of whom have spouses, children of their own, and jobs. The census data shows a more than 60 percent increase in the past seven years. In 2000, 2.3 million older parents were living with their adult children; by contrast, last year, that number jumped to 3.6 million. To boot, the census found in 2005 that 30 percent of preschoolers are cared for by grandparents.

Norva Kitchens’ house got fuller when her daughter died tragically this spring. The retired high school librarian and Batesville, Mississippi, resident cares for her daughter’s four children before and after school so their father can work and go to school. Her other daughter, a full-time teacher, leaves her one-year-old son in Kitchens’ care on weekdays. “With the economy the way it is, she couldn’t afford day care,” says Kitchens. Although it can be a challenge, Kitchens relishes time with her grandchildren.

“I love it. I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she says. “I’m the second mama.”

Another set of unfortunate circumstances prompted Lowraine Shepherd of Como, Mississippi, to begin caring for her 8- and 6-year-old grandsons. Her daughter-in-law is ill and unable to care for them, while her ex-husband, Shepherd’s son, travels out of state for work. Shepherd, a high school librarian who is nearing retirement, likes having the boys close to her—“then I’m not worried about them,” she says. But, she admits, it is tiring. ‘They are so active. You have to always have something for them to do. I might complain, but I enjoy it.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t tragedy that led Linda Dunn to become a “granny nanny.” The retired special education teacher from Miami is now on her second round of caring for an infant grandchild. After retiring over a year ago, she cared for one baby grandchild until age one. At that point, the child went to day care, but took with her the benefit of many months with grandma. Now Dunn cares for another granddaughter, who was born this winter.

“I wasn’t able to do it for all of the grandchildren but I could for these two,” she says. She added that teaching prepares you for a lot of situations, even her current one. Nevertheless, “being a grandparent is different,” she says. “It’s just a labor of love.”

For now, Dunn is dedicating her retirement to her grandchildren, knowing that she is forming long-lasting bonds with them and helping her daughters. If it had been possible for her to set up a similar arrangement for her own kids, “I would have jumped at it,” she says.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is observing the recent surge of familial fusions. “It’s occurring in all segments of the population,” she says.

Coontz went on to add some historical perspective: “In the 19th century, there was a strong value to live with, or close enough, to help parents and have them help you.”

In the 20th century, there was more emphasis on love-based marriage and pressure on adult children to cut ties to the older generation. Freudians asserted that loyalty should be to primary family: Put the parents in a nursing home and focus on your children. “What I’ve seen in the last 30 years is a sea change,” says Coontz, who is also director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a membership organization of family researchers, mental health and social work practitioners, and clinicians. “There’s been such a change in child rearing, parents today don’t feel that their parents will be [dictatorial]. They feel closer.”

She continues: “[Today’s parents] feel their own parents respect them as individuals. They value marriage but are rediscovering intergenerational ties in a new way—friendship and mutual respect rather than blind loyalty. With that mutual respect, there is a closeness of generations; it’s not based on pure need and simmering resentment.”

Coontz credits this sea change to baby-boomer parents, who broke with a more hierarchical parenting style. The result: “Their kids felt more comfortable establishing a friendship with them as they got older,” she says. This can also translate to how baby-boomers relate to their own parents.

Gene Craig's mother-in-law, Lillimay Schramm, moved in with him and his wife, Helen Craig, in their Libertyville, Illinois home after Schramm could no longer afford her rent. Her Social Security and $80-per-month pension covered the bills for a while, but the rent and cost of food and medicine kept increasing, so she moved in with the Craigs. Gene was an elementary school guidance counselor and Helen an art and first- and second-grade teacher (Gene is also the current president of his local Illinois Education Association retired chapter.) They claimed her as a dependent so Helen could cover her mother’s health insurance.

“Fortunately, we [were] empty-nesters and had a large bedroom where she could have her bedroom area and a sitting area with a desk and television,” says Gene. “This way she had her privacy and she also had the run of the house while we were away working at our respective schools.” Added Helen, “She let us have our privacy all the time.” She also gave them money toward household expenses.

It was a win-win for the Craigs. Schramm had her own space and the Craigs came home to home-cooked meals every night. “It was like living in a restaurant,”says Helen. “We shared mealtimes together, family events, travel,” added Gene. “It was a very congenial living arrangement that lasted 17 years until she died in 2000.”

Amy Goyer, AARP’s grandparent expert, has seen a lot of similar situations recently. “Families are rethinking things,” says Goyer. “When bad financial situations happen, families come together.” During the Depression, there were lots of people living in one household, she added. After World War II and the GI Bill, which gave returning soldiers the opportunity to go to college and get jobs around the country, there was a familial diaspora. “Now we’re going back; the economic terms fuel the coming together of families in multigenerational situations.”

Goyer acknowledges that she hears about the challenges, like space issues and setting boundaries, when she talks to families that move in together.  “[B]ut they have positives. [Generations] actually spend time together. Grandparents move from being peripheral and become central.”

As Goyer points out, Marian Robinson, mother-in-law to President Barack Obama, moved in with the First Family to help take care of Sasha and Malia when they moved to Washington, D.C. She is in many ways a typical grandparent, says Goyer. “She has an atypical situation, but the parents moved to a new city, a new house. They have new jobs that take them away from home, so grandma is helping the kids through the transition. Families are going through that all over the place. It’s a lot of change. She validates this role that so many grandparents are playing.”

It’s like Roseto on Pennsylvania Avenue.

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