National Grandparents Day: Celebrating the Grandparents Among Us

written by Dr. Luci Bearon (PhD, CFLE)
Associate Professor, NC State University
Adult Development/Aging Specialist, NC State Extension

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Did you know that there is such a thing as National Grandparents Day in the United States and that it has been celebrated for almost 40 years? If you never heard of it, you’re not alone. According to the American Grandparents Association (Grandparents.com), an estimated two out of three grandparents have never participated in National Grandparents Day.¹ The idea for a national Grandparents Day – with festivities and recognition similar to those of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – was envisioned, developed, and promoted in the 1970s by Mrs. Marian McQuade, a West Virginia grandmother and advocate for seniors. Mrs. McQuade believed that such an observance would bring families together to focus on and celebrate older adults, especially lonely elders in nursing homes, at risk of being forgotten by their families. In July of 1978, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution designating the Sunday after Labor Day as National Grandparents Day, and it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.²

Although the annual celebration of National Grandparents Day has not become as visible as the special days honoring parents, many card shops and drugstores sell cards for children and adults to send to grandparents; gift shops identify and stock items specifically for grandparents; and community organizations serving children, families and seniors plan events that are often multigenerational. Surfing the Internet this week, I found that Hallmark, American Greetings, and a number of other companies sell e-cards and coloring sheets, and many restaurants, museums and ballparks encourage families to celebrate the holiday in their venue. Twitter has an active page for the hashtag #grandparentsday, which has received over 400 new Tweets in the past 48 hours. Also, the Huffington Post has invited readers to send in stories and photos of how their own grandparents enriched their lives, inspired them and what made them so special and to share one memory that never fades. In counterpoint, the newspaper asked grandparents to write in want they most like to do with their grandchild and what lesson they hope to impart to him or her.

Today in the U. S. there are an estimated 65-70 million grandparents, a very diverse group with ages ranging from 30-somethings to supercentenarians (110+). They play a variety of significant roles in the lives of their grandchildren. If we are (or were) lucky enough to have a grandparent we bond with in some way, our grandparents may serve as our teachers or advisors, nurturers/spoilers, cooks, moral guides, kin-keepers, historians, generous hosts and hostesses and gift givers, and often playmates, companions, or babysitters. From my experiences teaching about family life and aging, I have found that when I ask college undergraduates or graduate students to describe something they admire about one of their grandparents, most students are eager to share memories, and anecdotes – stories often delivered with humor and palpable emotion. Although the relationships children and adults have with their grandparents vary widely and are surely more complex and nuanced than the anecdotes reveal, grandparent-grandchild relationships experienced or remembered over the life course can affect a grandchild’s identity, values, a sense of security and stability, and place in historical time.

One group that is gaining some visibility and deserves special mention is grandparents raising their grandchildren. Recently the U. S. Census Bureau released their 2015 annual report for National Grandparents Day showing a continuing upward trend for children to live with their grandparents.³ Current data estimates show that 7.2 million grandparents co-reside with their grandchildren under 18 years of age. However, 2.7 million of these grandparents have assumed parental responsibility for their grandchildren’s basic needs (food, clothing, and shelter). Reasons grandparents “step in” to take on the parenting role 24/7 may be due to a teen pregnancy or an adult child’s substance use, physical or mental health problems, child abuse or neglect, death of the biological parent or military deployment, among other major disruptions in family life. The statistics inform us that many (over half a million) of these surrogate parents have an income below the poverty level. An even larger number of the responsible grandparents have a disability. Many of the 1.6 million grandparents taking on the role are in the labor force and 354,000 of these working grandparents are age 60 and over.

For these grandparents raising grandchildren, think about the challenges and complexities these families may face as they stretch their limited resources; balance work and family; acquire new accommodations, furniture and clothing; leave the work force earlier than planned to give the care needed; or defer retirement plans and dreams to make ends meet. Additionally, grandparents serving as parents often encounter a lack of public awareness of the needs of grandparents that often include dealing with complex legal issues, high levels of stress, limited community services and supports tailored to their needs, and in some cases declining health. Nevertheless these strong and committed grandparents often say that they accept these challenges to ensure safety and stability for their grandchildren and thus see their efforts as a labor of love.

References & Resources:

  1. http://www.grandparents.com/food-and-leisure/did-you-know/surprising-facts-about-grandparents
  2. For more information on Marian McQuade and National Grandparents Day, visit http://www.grandparents-day.com/. Also, extensive information is available in an out-of-print book written in 1982 by Garret Matthews entitled “Grandparents Day and Marian McQuade” published by the West Virginia Press Club in Richwood, West Virginia. For a copy of this text, contact your local library (you may be able to get an interlibrary loan) or search for a bookseller that handles used books.
  3. For data on grandparents raising grandchildren, visit U.S. Census: Facts for Features. Contact your state or local department on aging to learn about programs and services for grandparents raising grandchildren.