The Four-Generation Family

Many grandparents are torn between wanting to spend time with grandchildren and needing to care for their own parents

By Jack Beaudoin

On December 12, 2007, James and Nancy Wilcox of Lyman, Maine, welcomed their first grandchild, Connor, into the world. A month later, they welcomed James's parents into their home. "I left my job to take care of them," Nancy says. "We converted our dining room into a new bedroom."

Unusual just a few decades ago, the four-generation family has become a 21st-century social phenomenon. Today many grandparents are at the center of their families, not always an enviable position. They are eager to focus their time, attention, and resources on their grandchildren but at the same time they must assume new responsibilities for their aging parents, sometimes as primary caretakers.

"This is a fairly new situation which will come to be a major part of what it means to be a grandparent," says Allan Zullo, coauthor of The Boomer's Guide to Grandparenting (Andrews McMeel). "People have had to make some big adjustments about what they thought life as a grandmother or grandfather was going to be like."

Striving for Balance

Dr. Arthur Kornhaber, founder and president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, agrees. "We have got more great-grandparents than ever before," he says, "and with increasing longevity, folks are having to find a balance between helping the older and younger generations."

For Nancy Wilcox, 59, that has meant quitting her job to provide round-the-clock care for her 92-year-old father-in-law, who suffers from early to mid-stage Alzheimer's and has had surgery to treat rectal cancer, and her 91-year-old mother-in-law, who suffers from macular degeneration, an eye condition. "This is what the Lord would have us do," Wilcox says.

Caring for her in-laws has become a full-time job, but Wilcox says she still has plenty of contact with her son, daughter-in-law, and infant grandson, who live only a few miles away. "I'm ready to do whatever they need me to do," she says.

In fact, Wilcox believes that moving her in-laws into her home has brought all four generations of her family closer together. "It's made it much easier for the rest of the family to see Mom and Dad," she explains. "And it's made it easier on us — we used to drive down to their place to do their laundry and take them grocery shopping, banking, or whatever."

Enforced Separation

But for many other "sandwich" grandparents, creating an intergenerational home isn't an option. "One of the biggest problems is that nowadays people are spread out all over the country," Zullo says. "Your parents might be in Florida, you're based in Chicago, and your children and grandchildren are everywhere else."

Welcome to Bernie Monegain's world.

Monegain, a 61-year-old editor and writer, lives in Brunswick, Maine, a few blocks away from her 91-year-old mother's apartment, but 1,000 miles away from her twin granddaughters, Megan and Nicole, who live in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Monegain would like to relocate to be closer to the girls, but she says she needs to stay close to her mother. In May, her mother had to be hospitalized after a fall. Monegain took charge of her recovery, even as she continued to work. "My daughter, Kristie, once asked my mom if she'd ever want to move down to Charlotte, and my mother just laughed," Monegain says. "For me, it's off the table."

That doesn't mean Monegain is cut off from her grandchildren's lives. Her work schedule allows her to travel to Charlotte three or four times a year, and she is on the phone with her daughter every night, frequently chatting with her granddaughters as well. "It would be more fun to be around them more frequently," Monegain says, "but Kristie doesn't really need me."

Monegain's choices are typical of today's grandparents, Zullo believes. "Grandparents find themselves prioritizing," he says. "They have to take care of their own parents, and other things have to give a little. Their adult children understand that."

Bringing Generations Together

To make the best of things, grandparents often try to involve grandchildren in the care of their great-grandparents. "You can have multigenerational time together," Zullo says. "It's an immense boost to the great-grandparents, and a valuable experience for older grandchildren. Let's face it — the great-grandparents have so much to offer as historians, as the bearers of cultural and religious beliefs, as a link to a century ago."

Kornhaber warns, however, that "sandwich" grandparents should expect to experience some stress as they are forced to allocate their finite resources of money and time between different generations. He expects that more multigenerational families will begin sharing their living spaces, and their incomes. That might mean that retirement will become less about golf, social activism or exotic vacations, and more about maintaining doctor's appointments, balancing checkbooks, and babysitting.

"But if you rank family highly on your list of priorities," Zullo says, "it's what you've got to do."


Oops! I see I forgot to include Grandma's Pantry in that list of 11 groups that came over from the old site. It's here, again, in the Community section, under Food.

@pegskittens - Bravo to you and your husband for all you're doing for your family! And bless you, especially, for taking in your little grandson, in his time of need! Trust me, there are hundreds of GPs (grandparents) online and off, who are, for one reason or another, raising their GC (grandchildren). And you'd be surprised at how many have ended up adopting or thinking of adopting those GC! Often, like yours, the shape of their lives - or the shape they thought it would take at this stage of the game - has totally changed. You have a beautiful attitude about this unexpected new turn in your life and I take my hat off to you!

Roserred135, moderator, Grandparents Caring for Grandkids, Community Section - Grandparenitng

rosered135 on 2012-09-16 08:26:06

We recently became foster parents for our 19 month old great-grandson and also supervise the finances and care of my husbands mother who is in an adult foster care facility. To say our retirement plans have changed would be an understatement. It us possibiy we will be adopting our great-grandson so our plans of wintering in Arizona have gone out the window and we are now going to play group and looking into preschools and kindergartens in our area instead of places to park the motorhome on our trips south.

I too have stopped working to be home with our little guy and while I love it, I miss the interaction with my co-workers and getting dressed up for work. It's hard to keep my work outfits in tip-top shape while cleanin up the assorted liquids that come out of the many places that leake on these little people.

Looks like golf, social activism and exotic vacations are out and teachers conferences, sports practice and ball games are in. Can't think of a better way to spend my retirement! on 2012-09-16 00:35:09

I'm also glad that people now have to log in to comment. Thank you! If anyone doesn't see the Login button, it's to the top-right of this page. ... Once you're logged in, maybe more of you will feel comfortable to come look for you old groups (from the old site). Please remember that only 11 of them were relocated here. You can find them by clicking on Community (very top-middle of page). Then you'll come to a Groups page where these forums are grouped by category. They include 4 under the category of Family Matters: Mothers-in-Law Anonymous, Grandparents without Grandkids, Empty Nest No Longer and Grandparents Unplugged; 3 under Grandparenting: New Grandparents, Grandparents Caring for Grandkids and Grandparenting from Afar; 1 under Just for Fun - the General Gabbery; 1 under Love and Relationships - All Single golden girls and guys wanted; and 1 under Other - Grandparents' Visitation Rights. A few other groups have cropped up but those are the categories where you'll find the 11. (People are already talking it up quite a bit in MIL Anon, no surprise!). Come and get together with old friends, etc.... :- )

rosered135 on 2012-09-13 15:04:23

Thank you for an article that encompasses all sides of the multi-generational phenomenon. Part of it reminds me of the days when I had to find a way to divide my time between helping out with my ailing MIL (now deceased) and acting as "nanny granny" to my 2 darling grandchildren..... BTW, if you're a member of Grandparents Caring for Grandkids and don't know where to find it, please log in (if you haven't already - see Login button at top-right of page), scroll up to the top of the page, click on Community - that's right, Community - and then Grandparenting. You'll see us.... Come on in...

rosered135 on 2012-09-13 11:01:32

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