Family ties: The Grandparent Factor

Grandfather and Deacon, John Grieve, 82, believes in the importance of extended family. (Photo by Michael Swan, CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News (CCN)] – Eighteen-year-old Rachel Kung is off to university this September, launching her independent, adult life. Her parents, Herbert and Jessica, might be nervous, but not Rachel. Rachel’s confidence is backed up by her grandfather, Thomas.

“She will have to be more independent. But she knows how to look after herself,” Grandpa Kung said. “She knows what she can rely on, who she can rely on. She always knows, if she has a problem, if she has some need, she can always fall back on us. We are always there to stand by her — stand for her — if there is any need.”

They are comforting words for a younger generation dealing with a fast-moving and uncertain world. And that bond between grandparents and their grandchildren appears to be growing more common, both practically and spiritually.

In 2017 Statistics Canada reported that five per cent of grandparents said they were living in the same household with their grandchildren, up slightly from four per cent in 1995. An Angus Reid survey in 2013 found that a third of grandparents see their grandchildren at least once a week, compared to just one in 10 who see their grandchildren only once every seven-to-12 months.

A recently-released Vanier Institute of the Family “Snapshot of Grandparents in Canada” notes the difference between immigrant and non-immigrant grandparents: Immigrant grandparents are more than twice as likely to live with their grandchildren, owing to “a complex interplay of choice, culture and circumstance.”

The statistical picture makes this Father’s Day filled with inter-generational meaning and also comes smack in the middle of a month designated in some provinces, including Ontario, as Seniors’ Month.

Rachel grew up with her grandfather and grandmother as constants. When she was a baby, she and her parents lived with her grandparents in the same house. When she went off to kindergarten, it was her grandfather who drove her there and picked her up and played with her after school.

“She liked to imitate what she learned at the school and then repeat that with me. But she would reverse the roles,” said Thomas. “She becomes the teacher and I become the student.”
Rachel refers to her grandfather and grandmother Pauliana as “pretty much my second parents.”

“They are a presence in my entire life.”

The close connection has given Rachel a strong sense of who she is spiritually and culturally. Though her parents chose a public high school for her, thanks to her Deacon grandfather Rachel feels grounded in her Catholic faith. Though her parents rarely attend Sunday Mass (Thomas calls them CEOs who attend at Christmas, Easter and Other occasions) she is in Church pretty regularly with her grandparents.

Her grandparents also incorporated Cantonese into her daily life so that on a recent trip to Hong Kong she found she could get by fairly well.

Most of all, Rachel has noticed the quiet, steady, honest values of her hardworking, immigrant grandparents.

“I’m going to carry that with me my entire life,” she said.

Besides the obvious reliance on grandparents for child care, grandparents are also making financial sacrifices for their grandchildren — working longer, taking out second mortgages.

The Kungs traded up to a bigger house when Rachel was born so the three generations could live together while their children worked and saved their way to affording their own house. When Grandma Pauliana’s health became a challenge after a car accident, Thomas retired two years early with less than a full pension so he could take on more of the childcare burden.

This greater commitment by grandparents comes at a time when there are fewer grandchildren to go around. On average, grandparents in 2017 had four grandchildren, down from five in 1995, according to Statistics Canada. This comes at a time when the grandparent generation is living longer and healthier lives.

In an economy that tends to atomize families, sending people chasing jobs and careers in different parts of the country, St. Jerome’s University sociologist David Seljak worries many grandparents won’t be able to assume their traditional roles passing on faith and culture to the next generation.

“Given that grandparents have traditionally been a major factor in the socialization of children into their religious tradition, one wonders if the new situation will mean that it will be more difficult — if that is even possible — to pass on the faith,” he said.

Connie and Eric Bogoros have responded to this crisis by starting up a chapter of the Catholic Grandparents Association in Holy Rosary Church in Guelph.

“We see ourselves as a very necessary link in the chain these days,” said Connie Bogoros. “Because of that very fact that a lot of the children, our adult children, have left the faith or are not practising in the way at least that we did. Consequently, our grandchildren, a lot of them, aren’t learning the faith. We feel it’s just a huge loss for them. They’re missing out on so much.”

The Catholic Grandparents Association started off in 2003 as a pilgrimage in honour of Jesus’ grandparents St. Joachim and St. Anne. Today it is present in 47 countries. Irish founder Catherine Wiley didn’t just dream it up to pass time.

“It’s not because we wanted a Hallmark Card opportunity day. It’s because genuinely, we care about our grandchildren,” she told The Catholic Register on the phone from Ireland. “When my daughter told me that she wasn’t going to baptize my first grandchild, I was shocked. I mean, I was really shocked. I didn’t know how I could deal with it. I didn’t deal with it very well.”

Wiley’s instincts and experience tell her modern families need more from grandparents at a time when it is getting harder and harder to hold families together.

“When divorce happens and your own kids are literally sobbing in your arms, somebody has to hold the grandkids together — has to hold the whole thing together,” she said. “That’s normally the grandparents, but they suffer themselves.”

Following divorces among her children, she’s seen the importance of her husband.

“Grandfathers are incredibly important, particularly in this day of broken families,” she said. “We have divorce in the family. I have four grandsons and they absolutely look to my Stewart, my husband, as the father figure in their lives.”

Fatherhood continues on into grandfatherhood, said Deacon John Grieve, who is grandfather of 12 with a 13th on the way.

“If there’s any difficulty, we get called,” said Grieve.

The grandfather’s role is vital, even when it’s hard to detect, said Connie Bogoros.

“My husband, he’s here listening but he’s quiet. And that’s the typical male scenario,” she said. “He’s extremely supportive.”

The Bogoros were so stumped by the problem of passing their religious heritage on to their grandchildren, they went together to the 2015 World Meeting of Families, where they met Wiley and led to Guelph’s Catholic Grandparents Association group with about 20 active members.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote an official “Prayer for Grandparents” at Wiley’s request. It asks Jesus to “Look with love on grandparents the world over. Protect them! They are a source of enrichment for families, for the Church and for all of society.”

Wiley has asked Pope Francis to declare a “World Day of Prayer for Grandparents.” Having heard the Pope speak so often about his grandmother Rosa, she’s confident that day is coming.