The changing role of grandparents

Jack and Carol Friedman, Phoenix, grandparents, Rick D'Elia photograph
Jack and Carol Friedman, of Phoenix, shoot hoops with their grandchildren (from left) Sam (9), Emily (7) and Julia (7) Root, who live with their parents on the same property. Photos by Rick D’Elia.

“Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house we go…” So goes the famous nursery rhyme. There was a time when the extent of kids’ time spent at grandmother’s—and grandfather’s—house did not extend past holidays, summer vacations or birthdays.

Grandparents often play a more active role in today’s families. Some grandparents have taken on expanded duties by choice, while others find themselves stepping in as full-time caregivers because of unforeseen circumstances that leave their own children unable to fulfill parental obligations.

Whatever the situation, grandparents’ roles in today’s modern families are as varied as the families themselves.

Grandparents in the guesthouse

Phoenix couple Sarah and Chuck Root, parents of Sam, 9, and twin daughters Julia and Emilia, 7, had bounced around the idea of living with Sarah’s parents, Jack and Carol Friedman, for many years. If they didn’t have to schedule visits and drive across town, the kids could enjoy more quality time with Nana and Papa.

It wasn’t until Sarah’s dad was in a life-threatening car accident two years ago that they came up with a plan.

“We had always talked about it, but when my dad was in the accident, we realized time was precious,” says Root.

Ten months later, the Roots found a property that met their criteria: plenty of room for their family of five with a detached guesthouse for Sarah’s parents. They bought the house together.

Root says the best part about three generations living together is her parents’ and kids’ proximity to each other: “[I love] seeing how happy they are having their grandparents so close.”

Initially, the family established specific ground rules for when the kids could knock on the door to their grandparents’ living area. “Those rules didn’t last long,” says Carol, laughing. Now the kids come and go as they please, perusing American Girl dolls on the laptop, watching a Diamondbacks game with Papa, working on crafts with Nana or enjoying an ice-cream sandwich after dinner.

When it comes to caregiving, roles are well- defined. Occasionally, Jack and Carol take care of the kids when Sarah and Chuck are away; but when they’re all together, Sarah wants them to be grandparents, not disciplinarians. She also observes generational differences when it comes to child-rearing.

“I am learning from Sarah,” says Carol. “We did not talk [about] feelings in our family,” she says, adding that when she was a child, she was expected to comply with expectations and there wasn’t “all this talk and feeling stuff.”

Although they are living just steps away from each other, Sarah says she doesn’t see her parents as often as one might expect, under the circumstances: “When we’re [all] home, we’re doing our [own] home stuff.”

Parents, grandparents and grandkids take the time to meet up for an after-dinner “game night” every week or two. “There’s usually a game of Monopoly or Pictionary running,” says Chuck.

Sherry and Ken Levine, Landsdale, Pennsylvania, grandparents, Rick D'Elia photograph
Sherry and Ken Levine, of Landsdale, Pennsylvania, with their grandchildren, Phoebe (10) and Levi Razar (7), of Phoenix.

Active and involved grandparents

Deb Razar, Phoenix mother of Phoebe, 9, and Levi, 7, says that since her kids were born, her parents, Ken and Sherry Levine—like many “snowbird” grandparents who leave colder climes for Arizona’s mild winters—visit Arizona for three months each year. When they do, Levine says they are “super involved.”

A recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) showed that almost 70 percent of grandparents said they play an important role in their grandchildren’s lives, providing advice, childcare and even financial support.

“People are taking care of themselves and staying younger [longer],” says Razar. “My dad takes Levi to the park to play ball. My parents help with everyday activities like homework to give me time to take care of other things. Sometimes I think my parents are more fun and patient than I am!”

Razar says the relationship between her parents and her kids has always been important to her—perhaps because of the close relationship she had as a child with her own grandparents.

“Their used-parts business and small-car dealership was my second home,” she says. “My grandmother, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, also ran the diner next door, where I would go after school. If my mom was sick, my grandmother would pick me up and take me there.”

When they’re in town, Razar sees her parents several times a week. “They pick up the kids from school. They come to school events, take the kids to activities, come to their games,” she says. “They babysit so [her husband] Jeremy and I can have date nights. They take them for sleepovers or stay at our house so we can go away for a weekend.”

Although Razar is quick to say she wishes her parents lived here year-round, she also appreciates the focused, quality time when they come to visit.

“At home in Landsdale, Pennsylvania, they are busy with their own social network,” says Razar. “But while they’re in Arizona, their main focus is enjoying their retired life and their grandkids, daughter and son-in-law.”

Distance can have an impact on the nature of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Razar says her kids and parents stay in touch by calling and using FaceTime weekly. They also trade correspondence by mail, but it’s primarily phone calls and video chats that nurture their connection.

Grandparents raising grandchildren

Some grandparents are swapping the relaxation of retirement for the stresses of encore careers in childrearing.

Patricia Dominguez, director of Kinship Care Services at the Phoenix nonprofit Duet, founded the program 18 years ago after observing that grandparents raising their grandchildren were in desperate need of support. The program provides encouragement and guidance to “safety net” grandparents who step in and take on parental roles when their own kids are unable to care for children. Substance abuse, incarceration, mental illness, child abuse or a parent’s death are common reasons for this role reversal.

Duet’s Kinship Care program offers support groups and seminars on topics including behavioral health, substance abuse, understanding teens and navigating the Department of Economic Security system to access programs that assist eligible families with childcare costs.

“Grandparents don’t want to see their grandchildren in the [foster-care] system,” says Dominguez. “They work…to make sure their grandchild has the chance for a better life.

“We find that support groups are very helpful for grandparents. A lot of times, they feel overwhelmed. We’re a good starting place for them to get that validation. They see that ‘Hey, we are not the only ones going through this’ and exchange information with other grandparents who are further down that journey.”

Duet serves about 1,000 Arizona families each year, offering social events, one-on-one support by phone and limited financial assistance for daycare or structured after-school programs to give grandparents a break.

“Physically, it is draining—exhausting at times,” says Dominguez. “We want to give grandparents the opportunity to have lunch with friends—or just take a nap!”

When my son Riley, now 12, was born, I soon realized that I wanted my parents and my kids to have the close relationship that comes come from frequent interaction; monthly visits weren’t going to be enough. (And having built-in babysitters was pretty enticing, too!)

So I left Southern California and moved back to Phoenix. My parents are now just a five-minute drive away—and a vital support system for our family.

My kids say that nothing beats a weekend with Bubby and Grandpa. Whether they’re picking oranges, watching an Arizona Cardinals football game or going to their favorite pancake joint together, there’s no substitute for the grandparent-grandchild closeness they share.

Recently, my son told me, “Mom, Grandpa is my best friend!” It doesn’t get any grander than that.

RELATED: Arizona resources for grandparents raising grandchildren.