March 13, 2010

Grandparents today perform an active role


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Staff Photo by Derek Davis, Monday, November 14, 2005: Malia Martinez, 4, of Scarborough and her grandmother Rosalie Heart of Old Orchard Beach walk along the shore as the sun begins to set at Ferry Beach in Scarborough. They were collecting mussels to bring to Malia's parents for dinner.

For the Maine Sunday Telegram

Roasting hot dogs outdoors in the dead of winter probably doesn't come to mind when boomers think about the activities they shared with their own grandparents. But the adventure, which capped off building an enormous snow cave at their home in Sebago a few years back, seemed like a perfect way for Ron and Susan Hall to spend time with their grandchildren.

The Halls, who now live in South Portland, are like many boomer grandparents these days. The more they see their five grandchildren, the better.

Like many of their own grandparents, boomer grandparents try to be present for their children's kids. Like many of their own grandparents, boomer grandparents try to offer love, time and attention to their children's kids.

The difference today? As work, school and activities fill the lives of all ages, boomer grandparents are now weekend sports spectators, child-care providers, even travel companions. Boomers have put a new face on being Grandpa and Grandma.

Consider child care. Joanne Girard, 62, of Scarborough spends two days a week with her 14-month old granddaughter, Fiona, whose parents work full-time. ''It's the most exciting thing that's happened to me in my life,'' said Girard. ''She made me younger.'' Fiona and Joanne are errand and shopping buddies, but many of their activities are ''very impromptu,'' Girard said. ''We sit on the floor and look at books constantly. We listen to music, and we dance like crazy. I like to surprise her and keep her interested. She's a very sharp little cookie.''

Fiona spends Tuesdays and Thursdays with Girard and her husband, Jim. On Thursdays she's there from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. ''I'm tired when she leaves, but five minutes later I miss her to death,'' Joanne Girard said.

Girard knows what it's like to share her life with a grandparent. Her own grandfather lived with her family when she was a child.

''He was incredible,'' Girard said. The Girards' two daughters never knew their grandparents, nor did Jim Girard know his. Fiona is helping to make up for that. ''Nothing makes us smile more than she does,'' Girard said.

Linda Caouette, 61, of Buxton, said she and her grandmother were close, but the activities they shared were on the sedate side.

''My grandmother was always in a dress,'' said Caouette, who is more likely to wear jeans and sweaters. ''Lifestyles were more confined to the home,'' she said. Like Girard, Caouette's role as a grandmother is active and varied. She is self-employed and arranges her schedule so she can drive to Portland's Waynflete School every afternoon to pick up her granddaughter Emily, 12. Living next door to her daughter and son-in-law makes the arrangement work even better.

''My job allows me to do this,'' Caouette said. ''I'm privileged to help.'' Her involvement began when Emily was born; she has been on board every since. ''The time I spend with her is absolutely wonderful,'' she said.

Some of that time is spent on the soccer sidelines watching Emily's travel soccer games -- rain or shine.

Other boomers find themselves on the grandparent sports circuit as well. Bill and Teresa Schulz of Freeport work full-time and make the most of weekends to see their two grandchildren, who live in greater Portland. That includes numerous Saturday mornings on the soccer field watching their grandson Cameron, 8.

Meanwhile, Ron and Susan Hall spend many hours in local gyms as their only grandson, Teddy, 15, plays basketball. In addition, the Halls' school-aged grandchildren often spend nights with them. ''We get to know them and can be a help to their parents,'' said Susan Hall. That's a bit different from her experience as a granddaughter. Although she was a ''huge part'' of her grandparents' lives, Susan said their time together was quiet and indoors.

''They were elderly, and they acted elderly,'' said Hall.

In contrast, the Halls' roles as grandparents are based on activity.

''We both decided we wanted to be physically active'' with their grandchildren, Susan Hall said. Becoming grandparents at a relatively young age was ''a bonus.'' And with a backyard pool and a garage full of ''scooters and basketballs and jump ropes,'' the Halls' home offers more than the Sunday dinners or visits after school to which Susan was accustomed as a granddaughter. In fact, it's not even unusual for the couple to get a call from a grandchild with a homework question, she said.

The Halls have also added travel to their repertoire as grandparents.

When granddaughters Taylor and Madison turned 6, each took a trip to Disney World with Susan. Five years ago grandson Teddy went to Cooperstown with Ron. In addition, the Halls regularly travel to North Carolina to visit their granddaughter, Ari, 3, their only grandchild who doesn't live within a five-mile radius of their house. And Susan Hall will expand her grandparent role even more this month when she begins to care for her 3-month old granddaughter, Charlotte, one day a week. ''We feel pretty good about our roles,'' she said.

Boomers are giving serious thought to what those roles are. The Schulzes, of Freeport, have clear and fond memories of their own grandparents and strive to craft equally close relationships with their own grandchildren. As a youngster, Teresa Schulz walked from Cathedral School every afternoon to her grandparents' house, where she stayed until her mother picked her up at dinner time.

Bill Schulz said that on weekends he often rode his bike from his home in North Deering to his grandparents' house on Dartmouth Street, where he would spend Fridays night and a good part of Saturday. His summers were spent at the family's camp on Little Sebago.

The Schulzes are quick to acknowledge that being a grandparent is much more difficult when their grandchildren do not live locally.

''Grandparents used to always live in the area (of their grandchildren),'' said Teresa. When Bill's son Ben lived in California for three years, they stayed in touch by phone and by mail, even sending grandson Cameron a puzzle of the United States so he could visualize the distance that separated him from his grandparents.

''We were missing time with a special little boy,'' said Teresa. These days the couple must navigate a long-distance relationship with their granddaughter Sophia, 2, whose parents include Teresa's daughter Jennifer.

The Schulzes make the most of their grandchildren nearby.

Their 2-year-old grandson Jack was born 10 weeks early; Teresa visited him in Maine Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit every morning before she went to work. As he got older, her lunch hours were often a three-generation gathering in which she joined Jack and his mother Tara, the older of Teresa Schulz' two daughters.

Bill and Teresa Schulz's outings with Jack and his parents this fall have included the York Animal Kingdom and apple picking. But the couple agrees that one of the best ways to spend time with their grandchildren is time without structure, time without an agenda, just the way it was with their own grandparents. Today, schedules of all kinds -- plus sensitivity to parents' own limited time with their kids -- make it difficult to just ''hang out,'' said Teresa Schulz.

They're not complaining. Boomer grandparents play different roles than their own grandparents -- both by choice and by necessity. One quality, however, transcends those details of time and place. Just ask Teresa Schulz.

''It's the greatest feeling, to see the child of your child.''

Kristine Millard is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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