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Having a Grand(Parent) Vacation

More seniors are taking their grandchildren on major trips.


There was a time when Bernadette Folger thought grandparents weren't supposed to do much more with their grandchildren than remember birthdays and give big hugs. But last summer, after the 74-year-old retired Reno schoolteacher found herself giggling like a teenager as she whooshed down Idaho's Snake River with her two young granddaughters, she realized what a different family portrait hers had turned out to be.

"When I was a young girl, my own grandparents seemed so old to me," said Folger, who is planning a similar outing this summer. "I remember they had to live with us because they were so frail ... I just never dreamed I'd be out river-rafting or horseback riding with my grandkids someday."

But gathering the grandchildren for a rafting trip or a two-week excursion to Europe is hardly out of the ordinary anymore. Because they are living longer and healthier, because they are younger and wealthier, today's grandparents are playing far more significant roles in the lives of their grandchildren. A generation ago, adults had only a one-in-five chance of having any living grandparents by the time they turned 30, said Vern L. Bengtson, a USC gerontology professor who has studied family sociology for 35 years. But for children born today , by age 30, 76% will have at least one living grandparent. In addition, the average life expectancy for people born this year is 79, compared with 76 four years ago.

Data from the 2000 Census show that more than 4 million grandparents now live with their grandchildren--and more than half are the primary caregivers.

With more parents continuing to work full-time outside of the home, coupled with increased life expectancy among seniors and decreased fertility among their children, the potential for substantial grandparent-grandchild connections is stronger than ever. Millions of baby boomers, the oldest of whom turn 56 this year, are heading into grandparenthood.

"Contrary to the once-popular opinion that old people are a burden, grandparents now help with all aspects of child rearing," said Paul Kleyman, editor of the American Society on Aging's newspaper, Aging Today. "And more than ever, they're doing all of it."

The way families are spending leisure time together illustrates one of the most visible aspects of this shift. Nearly one-fourth of all trips taken by kids are with grandparents, according to the Travel Industry Assn. Businesses have started to pay close attention, fanning the trend with tours and discounted packages for "grandtravel," as it has become known in the industry.

Even after Sept. 11, travel agents say, grandparents were among the first to want to get moving again. Requests for trip brochures and bookings have rebounded quickly among seniors, and not just because they are seasoned travelers. "These vacations represent one of the biggest ways in which grandparents are influencing, nurturing and helping to raise grandchildren today," said USC's Bengtson. "Never in human history have we seen this kind of shift, in which [grandparents] are changing the face of American families so dramatically."

For grandparents, traveling with their children's children is a unique opportunity to forge friendships, impart values and spend uninterrupted time getting to know one another--all things they may not have experienced with their grandparents, Bengtson said. In return, children growing up with strong ties to grandparents will look at aging in a new light.

"I suspect today's grandchildren will have an entirely different image of aging than other generations," said Robert B. Friedland, director of the Center on an Aging Society at Georgetown University. "They'll be less afraid of it, they'll understand it more. Thirty years from now when they think of growing old, they'll remember that camping trip with grandpa or even that roller-coaster ride with grandma. It's all part of this transformation."

Most parents welcome the expanding role of their parents in the children's lives. For some it's a matter of economics and time; with most couples in today's households working--and working longer hours, at that--parents are happy to let their children roam with their grandparents, who are bent on leaving behind more than just trust funds.

Watching her 10- and 11-year-old grandsons fly-fish and learn to use a lariat at a dude ranch last summer convinced Anabel Lindy, 73, that such experiences were more valuable than any amount of financial inheritance she could provide. "We connected with those boys and saw them discover things that we'd never normally see in the daily course of our lives," said Lindy, who lives in Philadelphia. "I want to spend the time and money now, while we're able to, because what's it going to matter when we're gone? They wouldn't have known us. Not like this."

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