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A new sociological study by Sara Moorman and her associates
at the Institute on Aging at Boston College indicates that grandparent-grandchild ties can have significant impact on happiness versus depression, particularly as grandparents age. Yet so many grandparents live so very far from their children and grandkids, making the benefits of that relationship harder to attain.
Last weekend my husband and I babysat for our California grandkids while their parents were out of town. At the end of the weekend when the cab came to pick me up to take us to the airport, I felt tears welling up within me. I looked down at the two young ones whose arms were wrapped around my waist as they cooed "I love you sooo much gramma," I saw tears there as well.
What made the love bonds feel so especially strong that weekend that parting yielded such intense sweet sorrow?
My husband and I had arrived on Thursday at night, so we were at their home when the children woke up on Friday morning. They ran downstairs to check if we'd arrived, and immediately snuggled into our bed. Our granddaughter wanted to take her before-school shower with me. Our grandsons pulled out the chess board to beat Grampa at least once before we even had time to get dressed.
After school let out we took the kids for ice cream, and then to the bookstore to resupply. The five-year-old picked two I Can Read books, and by the end of the weekend of stints on my lap sounding out words he was actually reading.
On Saturday a clump of us plus one of their friends all walked to the tennis courts ten minutes from their house. We were all delighted in how much better the kids are getting and how the oldest of them is getting close to beating the old folks.
On Sunday morning I helped our young pianist prepare for his All-Beatles-songs piano recital and prepared his younger sister for her singing debut as her brother's lead singer on "Yellow Submarine." We cheered wildly when their performances proved to be spectacular, at least to the eyes and ears of their grandparents.
Over the course of the weekend we squeezed in time to make two Target runs, one for new shoes and one for new shelves for the kids' closet. Even rearranging all the clothes in the closets and shelves of the room shared by three of the kids proved to be a fun project.
Is it possible to keep connected with grandchildren who live far from you?
Phonecalls and computers do make conversational exchanges possible between grandkids and grandparents.
At the same time, sharing information by phone or Skype in no way builds closeness like face-to-face, skin-to-skin, smile-to-smile, eye-to-eye hands-on fun together. That's no doubt true for connecting with loved ones at any age, and all the more so with younger children. Long-distance relationships lack the bandwidth to make oxytocin flow and tears to overflow. That's the reality.
How important is it to grandparents and/or to the grandkids that they enjoy a hearty relationship?
The fun can be unbeatable. As the Beatles sang, "All you need is love...."
At the same time, the Moorman study of grandparents and their adult grandchildren adds a further dimension. The absence of close connecting between grandparents and grandchildren was linked to depression symptoms, both for the seniors and for the young adults. The closer the bond, the more anti-depressive benefits were observed.
"The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health," Sara M. Moorman, an assistant professor in the department of sociology and the Institute on Aging at Boston College, said in a press release.
Are there other signs of the importance of close contact with people we love?
Closeness seems to have a particularly strong impact on elderly folks.
Studies have shown that older men and women who do not have close contact with their family and friends had a 26 percent higher death risk over a seven-year period compared to those who were more social. The increased risk was still observed even if the person did not consider themselves to be lonely.
If you want your grandchildren to connect with you as they grow up, better start the connecting now, when they are younger. If you are in the sandwich generation and want your children to feel connected to their grandparents, start now.
The moral of the story?
To fully enjoy the perks of close loving relationships with grandchildren, there's no replacement for physical proximity.
That's definitely bad news for those of us whose children have scattered across the content, and often even across the globe.
On the other hand, we live in times when cars, trains and air travel make visits almost anywhere more possible than ever before in history. Expensive, yes. Complicated if travel means leaving one's personal life in order to join into the lives of one's grandchildren. And worth every penny and every moment.
Denver clinical psychologist and marriage therapist Susan Heitler, PhD is author of multiple books plus the online program PowerOfTwoMarriage.com which teaches the skills for marriage success.
For more of Dr. Heitler's blogposts, click here.