Grandchildren as Sources of assistance in Old age

In rare cases, grandchildren in the families we interviewed provided direct assistance in caregiving. A co-residing adult grandson sometimes helped with the physical labor, such as helping to turn his bedridden grandmother. In another family, a young adult granddaughter who was a nurse used her skills to help her mother care for her grandmother with Parkinson's and sometimes took her to doctor's appointments and offered advice. Another woman's grandson had recently become a certified care worker and offered occasional assistance and advice. In one family, the daughter-in-law caregiver had fallen and had difficulty helping the cognitively impaired mother-in-law, so the ninetyfour-year-old was moved to the nearby granddaughter's apartment, where she shared a room with her twenty-four-year-old great-grandson. He was apparently a sound sleeper who managed to sleep through his great-grandmother's attempts to find the toilet at night, making things more difficult for his mother (the granddaughter) in the morning.

Interaction across Generations: Long-term Relationships versus Sporadic encounters

A few of the people we interviewed had no contact at all with their grandchildren. Others were intimately involved in their lives. Both of these extremes, however, were rare. At one extreme, grandparents with severe cognitive impairment might not be able to remember anything about their grandchildren:

Interviewer: How many grandchildren do you have?

Ninety-six-year-old woman: Grandchildren? I wonder how many of them there are. . .

Some saw their grandchildren rarely and then only for holidays or special occasions. Some of the older people complained, or related with apparent disappointment, that the grandchildren came only at obligatory times, formal occasions such as the summer Obon holiday or new year's, expecting The traditional gift of an envelope of cash. One used the phrase kao o dashita (showed their face) to indicate the perceived perfunctory nature of a summer visit. The extent of visiting might vary, however, even among grandchildren in the same family. In one family in which a daughter-in-law was caring for her mother-in-law, the unmarried younger grandson of the ninety-three-year-old came frequently. But the older grandson, who had children of his own, rarely came.

In other families, there was more regular interaction with grandchildren not living in the same house. Some out-of-town grandchildren spent part of their summer vacation in a parent's hometown with the grandparents. Others visited regularly, such as in the family where the granddaughters who did not live in the household frequently visited on sundays, taking their eightyeight-year-old grandmother with alzheimer's disease out for a while. The coresiding daughter-in-law commented, “the nieces come often on sundays and other occasions. Grandma enjoys being with family, even if she doesn't remember. They take her out for a walk or for tea.” Several grandchildren we met or heard about in other families made regular (weekly or monthly) visits to grandmothers in a group home or in a rehabilitation hospital.

Grandparents who lived with their grandchildren or whose relationships were particularly close knew about the grandchildren's lives in detail. In one interview, the eighty-seven-year-old woman showed us a baby yukata (cotton kimono) she had hand-sewn for her new great-grandchild. The following year, she and her son were talking about the family and its newest member, his sister's grandson. He began describing the trip in which his sister and her family had included their mother: “[My sister] thought it would be a good change for her. . . . Last year [my other sister] with the grandkids and great-grandkids (now ages five and two) went on a trip. The youngest is the one she was making the yukata for last year. His birthday is april 19. She always remembers when the kids were born. She knows the birthdates and years of all of her children, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.”

Although there was a lot of variation in the frequency of contact between grandparents and grandchildren, that frequency alone did not determine the nature of the relationship. In one three-generational residence (though the older generation and their son and family lived on separate floors of the house), the grandmother complained, “i told my daughter-in-law that she could trade in my old sewing machine and buy a new one so she could work at home, but the type she uses is expensive. It's good if the mother is home when the children are still small. So [because she is not home with them] i call out [the traditional greetings] to the children when they leave the house to go to school in the morning and when they come home from school.”

Later in the interview:

Interviewer: Do the grandchildren come in often?

Grandmother: Oh, they do. We fight, too. They don't listen to me anymore . . .

Interviewer: what gives you pleasure these days?

Grandmother: i used to sew and knit, but not any more. I have nothing useful i can do. I used to help with the newsletter at the women's association [Fujinkai] and travel a lot. But now, i guess i would say it's my grandkids. . . . Sometimes their grandfather goes upstairs to where they live and plays Go with the grandkids.

In this case, frequent contact led to the grandmother's ambivalence about her relationship with her grandchildren. They did not listen to her, but they were a source of pleasure as her ability to do other things she had formerly enjoyed declined.

On the other hand, there were cases of good relationships even when children and grandchildren did not live nearby, and perhaps when they saw less of each other there was less to complain about (ruth Campbell, personal communication). For example, a daughter-in-law observed, “Our two daughters come and visit but don't help with caregiving tasks. One lives nearby; the other is in sendai. The one is working, so not available much. There are five grandchildren [the mother-in-law's great-grandchildren] from their house, and the sister has three grandchildren. That's who's in the big group photo hanging on the wall.”

When we asked what the mother-in-law found pleasurable, the daughterin-law replied, “she waits for people to come, her daughter or the grandkids.” At an interview two years later, we noticed a newer photograph on a wall calendar, with the older woman sitting in her wheelchair in the center of a large family, including three great-grandchildren. The daughter-in-law explained that it was taken at her birthday dinner. There were huge trays of sushi and a birthday cake for her as well. She died the next year. All of the children and grandchildren had been to the hospital to see her, where she told them just before she died, “Minna nakayoku yatte kureta, naa [you've all gotten along so well (for me)].”

Frequent interaction may make possible a strong positive relationship or be the basis for intensified criticism of grandchildren. Those who interacted Primarily in formal, obligatory holiday visits had more distant relationships. Even the traditional grandparental indulgence of the holiday envelope of money gave little satisfaction when the grandparent felt that had been the reason for the visit. In contrast, having contributed to their care as young children, sharing the experience of traveling together, having them come for summer vacations, or visiting informally—these active engagements seemed to create bonds that were closer and more meaningful to the grandparents in their advanced old age.

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