When her grandmother developed dementia and could no longer recognize her, Sara Grochowski was heartsick. The grandma she had seen almost every day during childhood, who had brought her chicken soup when she was ill, no longer knew her.
But when Grochowski brought her children, then-5-year-old Lukas and baby Anna, to visit her grandmother, something happened.
“It was in those visits that I was able to see the person my grandma truly was again and the woman I was so close to all of my life,” Grochowski said. “My grandma could be with both Lukas and Anna and not worry about knowing their names or who they were supposed to be in relation to her, and she could just be silly and playful with them.”
As Grochowski found, a child’s relationship to great-grandparents can be profoundly meaningful for those families that experience it.
And given increased life expectancies, four-generation families have become more common. A 2006 study categorized nearly a third of survey respondents as being part of a four-generation lineage.
Life expectancy in the United States has risen by about 30 years since 1900, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This has been a big factor in the rising number of four-generation families over the past century, Minnesota state demographer Susan Brower said.
However, while the population may be living longer — especially in Minnesota, which tends to have higher life expectancies relative to the nation as a whole — women today are having fewer babies and having them later in life, which counteracts the former factor. Then there is the issue of mobility as families spread out across the country, which interferes with that generational contact.
Yet there also seems to be a countertrend, said University of Minnesota sociology Prof. Teresa Swartz. “It seems like to me that there may be some kind of transformations or changes along the lines of Americans’ general feelings about having an isolated nuclear family versus living in extended families that live close to one another and have frequent contact, because as people are living longer and staying healthy longer, I think, it allows for more multigenerational interaction.”
The need to connect
Valerie Aas felt that pull of family. She was living in California when her grandmother became ill, and her brother urged her to come back to visit her. When Aas could not get time off work, she realized she wanted to be closer and later moved back to Minnesota.
The age difference has not stopped Aas’ 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, from developing a close connection with her great-grandmother Louise Smith, now 100, who “loves to just meet with people and talk, and loves to hear anything they have to say,” Aas said.
“And then Lucy, at the other end of the spectrum, is also that way. She just loves talking, and telling everybody everything there is to know about her being 5, and her life. They both have this openness, and it sort of defies age.
“She’ll make up a story, and then my grandma will ask her questions about it, and all of us are actually quite entertained just by the exchange that happens,” Aas said.
The nature of the relationship means that there are some challenges. As her grandmother’s hearing has deteriorated, Aas has had to assume the role of translator for the two, repeating Lucy’s words so they can be heard. And Aas monitors the length of visits, since Lucy gets impatient after much more than an hour.
“Those early years for children are really the most crucial in their development, and the more stable support they can have from family and extended family, the better they do developmentally, and socially, and emotionally,” said Kay Tellinghuisen, vice president of Early Childhood Development at the Family Partnership, a local nonprofit that provides counseling and education to vulnerable families.
Many of the children that the Family Partnership works with lack strong family support.
While a child and great-grandparent bond can be special for both the young and old parties, it can also benefit the middle generations, as it did for Grochowski.
“In so many ways, it felt like my children brought my grandma back to me in moments, songs, and just seeing her laugh without restraint,” she said.
Sarah Rose Miller is a Minneapolis freelance writer.