Today's gramps and grannies seldom resemble the revered figures in Norman Rockwell illustrations.
But as their traditional role fades, grandparents are developing a different kind of clout, according to a sampling of doctors, researchers, attorneys, lawmakers, and a "professional grandma" who will be speaking at UC Irvine's first "Grandparent's Rights Conference," held, appropriately enough, this Sunday, Grandparent's Day.
The prevailing message at the daylong conference will be that society cannot afford to view grandparenting as a dusty old notion to be tucked away in some national attic of antiquated Americana.
'Becoming an Epidemic'
"According to the (U.S.) attorney general's office, 28 million grandparents are not allowed to see their grandchildren--it's becoming an epidemic," said Gary White, 44, a grandparent himself and president of Human Rights for Grandparents and Grandchildren, the group which is co-sponsoring the conference with the department of psychiatry and human behavior at UCI.
"People need to know how critical the extended family is to the development of a child," White said. "Some statistics (from the attorney general) show that only 4% of children in the United States today have extended family relationships."
With almost half of all marriages in America ending in divorce, with families moving more frequently, with the generational conflicts that were born in the '60s, grandparents have been squeezed out of many family portraits. Like many of the 1,000 or so members of the grandparent's group, White, a San Dimas accountant, got interested in the emerging grandparent's rights issue when his own daughter remarried and decided he and his wife should no longer see the grandchildren they had helped raise.
"If parent and adult child can't get along, that shouldn't be taken out on grandchildren," he said.
Dr. Justin Call, a UCI professor, and chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCI Medical Center, agrees. Call, who has been studying families for 30 years, says his research has confirmed that an intense bonding often occurs between grandparents and grandchildren.
"The growing and very special nature of the relationship between a grandparent and grandchild is interesting and significant from infancy and throughout life," said Call, 63. "In the normal situation, the child learns to identify the grandparent with a difference in generations and a difference within time or history. This helps the child sharpen his own sense of place and time and prepares him for a deeper and longer look into the meaning of his own life." Children who enjoy a good and "unbroken" relationship with their grandparents from early childhood through adolescence generally do better in school, have fewer problems with delinquency, and have higher feelings of self-esteem than children who don't have grandparents around, Call said. When these kids grow up, they tend to be better parents themselves, he added.
"Because they have a better long-term perspective on the meaningfulness of life, they're better able to pass on the best of one generation to the next--attitudes, values, a sense of responsibility about themselves and the world. Whereas an individual who has no meaningful connectedness with the past generation has less perspective and understanding of what it means to assume responsibility and care for the new generation," he said.
Some of Call's colleagues at UCI are in the midst of a five-year study which seems to be proving that grandchildren are good for grandparents as well.
Dr. Curt Sandman, vice chairman of the department of psychiatry at UCI and chief of research for the state Developmental Research Institute heads a "foster grandparent" program at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa. In the study, each senior citizen involved has been spending four hours a day, five days a week with a developmentally disabled person at the hospital. Sandman's team is putting these guinea-pig grandparents and control groups through a battery of tests and hooking them to computerized electroencephalographs to get "a multi-disciplinary view of the act of grandparenting."
Sandman warns that his findings are preliminary. But so far his study indicates that these foster grandparents sleep better, are less depressed and "show vigorous electrophysiological responses of the brain"--they have "a little better memory and their attention function is better.
The data also supports the "semi-radical" conclusion that "the brain retains a degree of plasticity--that the old brain can still learn," Sandman, 45, said.
Sandman's own grandmother was the most influential person in his life, and he has fond memories of traveling the country with her as a child--an experience his parents couldn't afford to provide. "She gave me a real healthy perspective on life. I'm aware of it all the time," he said. "Maybe that's why I've found this such a tempting area of research."