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The importance of grandparenting: A conversation with veteran journalist Lesley Stahl

In the 1930s, a person living in the United States could expect to live to roughly 60 years of age. Now the average lifespan is closer to 80. As more people are living longer, our nation is presented with a unique challenge and opportunity: How can we ensure that people live well as they age (and what polices and programs can ensure this), and what new opportunities exist for families and communities now that there are more grandparents and mentors than ever before?

Broadcast journalist Lesley Stahl has examined the role of grandparents in society from seemingly every conceivable angle. As a new grandparent, she has experienced this life-changing transformation firsthand. As an investigative reporter with 25 years experience as correspondent for CBS News’ 60 Minutes under her belt, she’s conducted interviews and researched the science of grandparenting. Blending these two perspectives, she shares what she's learned in her new book, Becoming Grandma, and will discuss the benefits and burdens of an aging society at Stanford Medicine's upcoming Health Policy Forum.

I recently corresponded with Stahl to learn how her experience as a grandparent and research for her book has informed her view of the relationship between children and grandparents. Here's what she had to say:

What’s the effect of grandparents taking an active role in raising their grandchildren — and how does this relationship impact the health and well-being of grandparents and the grandchildren?

Grandmothers have taken care of their grandchildren for all of time (well, at least back to the Stone Age) until recently. Babysitting that generation is really why grandmothers exist in the first place. The only other animals with child-caring grandmothers are whales and elephants, so it’s not part of the general plan of nature. Usually animals die when they can no longer reproduce. We post-menopausal women lived on because we took care of the children while the mother went off to hunt.

We made the babies fit to survive.

My point is that we have a historical if not genetic imperative to be deeply involved in our grandchildren’s lives. We benefit – they give our lives meaning and purpose – and the children benefit. They simply need us. And they thrive off our unconditional love. Furthermore, our children (the mothers and fathers) need our help because they’re both probably working, and good child care is hideously expensive.

Let me add that grandparents who take care of their grandchildren tend to feel younger and are actually happier. There are studies showing that men especially who babysit their grandchildren see their depression evaporate.

What existing health policies and social programs foster the grandparent/grandchild relationship, and how do you think they could change or be improved now that more people are living to be 70, 80 and beyond?

In my research for the book, I came upon very little in the way of public policy on grandparenting. The whole subject is under-studied and ignored. In fact, I found policies actually detrimental to the relationship. Take subsidized housing for the elderly. Usually there are no children allowed. So say the parents of three children die or go to jail, and the widowed grandmother is called upon to raise the kids. This is fairly common. Well, the grandmother will be ejected from her subsidized apartment. Thrown out. And where is she to go with three kids? This is a serious matter, with no clear answer.

I did come upon one grandparent building, which as far as I can tell is an outlier. It was built by the city of New York in the Bronx specifically for grandmothers and great-grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren. I was so impressed I devoted an entire chapter in my book to the building in the Bronx.

Do studies suggest that there’s something unique about the grandparent/grandchild relationship, or can any person fill this role?

I was surprised to discover that step-grandparents and surrogate grandparents can indeed fill the role. They can show a child that same unconditional, non-judgmental love, and give him or her thoroughly engrossed attention. I found a community in Illinois called Hope Meadows where seniors have developed those nurturing bonds with foster children. The kids call them grandma and grandpa. It’s so wonderful it made me tear up.

I also met step-grandmothers who fall madly in love with the babies exactly the way did with my granddaughters.

What was the most surprising scientific finding you learned while doing research for your book?

That the biochemical circuitry for baby love is the same as the one for romantic, erotic love. As we developed as a species, the latter – man-woman love – piggy-backed onto the wires and neurons that make a mother bond with her child.

When I began the book, my intention was to explain the deep elation I felt holding my granddaughters. I found myself using the adjectives and adverbs of love songs, like "madly" and "head over heels." If it hadn’t have been embarrassing, I would have said "passionately." Then I was told about the same circuitry, and I realized I was actually, really falling in love with the babies!

Previously: Grandparents update their baby skills at children’s hospital and New grandparents should brush up on baby-care practices, survey finds.
Image courtesy of Lesley Stahl

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