Jack C. Westman, M.D.
Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin-Madison

A seven-year-old girl said about her grandmother: "She's old on the outside but she acts like she's young on the inside." She hit the nail on the head!

Most of us older adults remain active today with some of us still working into our seventies. Even those of us who retire during our sixties may spend as much as one-third of our lives after retirement with our families sometimes encompassing even five generations.

By the middle of the next century as the "baby boomers" are the elderly, the entire United States will resemble present-day Florida in the proportion of the population composed of older adults. In l790 less than two percent of the population was over 65. In l990 that figure was twelve percent; by 2030 it will be over twenty percent.

Living longer means that more of us now lead three lives: first as children, second as adults with careers and most likely as parents, and third as retirees from careers - and for most of us as grandparents. During each of these lives we continually discover and learn new things. We find sides of ourselves that we did not know existed. Our third life is a time for discovering new talents and creative possibilities in our inner worlds. It is a time for applying the wisdom of the ages to ourselves. It is a time for discovering the full meaning of life and for preparing for the future, whatever that may be.

Being a grandparent means different things. Although grandparenting is not the dominant aspect of most of our lives, it is an aspect that is more important than most of us realize. For some of us who are actively raising our grandchildren, it is the most important part of our lives. Unfortunately, an increasing number of us are doing just that today. Some of us are estranged from our children and from our grandchildren because of strife in our families. But most of us live at some distance from our grandchildren and manage to maintain an active role in their lives though the mail, the telephone, and visits.

As grandparents we have important symbolic and practical functions in our cultures. We are important simply for what we mean as the oldest living representatives of our families. We can be a matriarch or a patriarch for our families. Our roles as family historians, mentors, and role models can confer status and respect on us.

Without grandparents, there is no tangible family line. Children who have had no contact with grandparents miss knowledge of their ancestry. They may not be able to muster a confident sense of the future as concretely represented by the fact that older people have seen their futures become the present and the past.

As grandparents we are the links to the past in our families. We can recall when the parents of our grandchildren were young, not always to their liking! We are the repositories of information about our genealogies (we are well advised to record as much of that as we can). That information often becomes useful material for themes that our grandchildren write in school, and sometimes it flowers into full fledged writing about our family trees.

As grandparents we can provide advice to our children that is hopefully appreciated. That is best done tactfully and when asked for! We can bring our families together and foster and maintain communication between them. We can play healing roles in assuaging the challenges, hurts, and disappointments in our families. In doing so we need to carefully avoid stirring up difficulties, the potential for which especially lies just beneath the surface in in-law relationships. We are the conveyers of traditions in our families and in our cultures.

We have much to offer our families and our communities. We are the people who have been there. Whatever wisdom is should lie in us. We can see through the posturings of our everyday world. We can identify with the lifestream and the cycles of human existence. We know what really is important and what is not. We know that disappointments, heartaches, and pain are natural parts of life. We know that life goes on without us. We have been a part of history and often have an interest in learning more about the past. We have seen enough to know that everything is not sensible and rational. We have had enough dreams and life experiences to know that the mystical may be more real than the rational. We have learned that whatever it is - good or bad - "it will pass."

If we have been reasonably wise in the conduct of our own lives, we have attended to our physical health and to our spiritual and emotional needs. We know that our bodies age, that our minds fail, but that our inner I remains the same throughout our lives. This is why we feel old in our bodies and minds but not in our spirits. This is why we really do not feel that the image in the mirror accurately reflects who we are. We truly know that we can be old on the outside but young on the inside. If we think about it, we can recognize that the present moment in truth is the "eternal now." In order to sharpen the vitality of our lives, we are well advised to manage our diets and to engage in regular physical exercise so that we can help our bodies serve us as well as is possible and so that we do not work against the efforts of our bodies to be healthy.

We also have the luxury of living our lives more or less as we wish. We have more control over our schedules because of the relinquishing of the responsibilities of the workplace. We have time to reflect and to enjoy the simple things in life. We can take time to appreciate the pleasures of simply being alive. We can enjoy the clouds, the trees, the flowers, and the smell of the air. We also can devote our time and energies to helping those who are less fortunate. Most importantly we can relive and resolve the past in our memories and reveries. The past is part of our lives today. We know what it feels like to lapse into the past as if it is the present. Our storehouse of memories leads most of us to relinquish the wish to live our lives over again.

We gain profound meaning in life from the love and respect of our juniors. The attachment between grandparent and grandchild is second in emotional power only to the bond between parent and child. The arrival of a grandchild usually triggers a dormant instinct to nurture in us. This is accompanied by joy in the birth or adoption of our grandchild; by recalling our own experiences as a parent and as a grandchild; and by thoughts about continuity of our own lives in the next generation.

Our grandchildren have as much to offer us as we have to offer them. We can enjoy pleasures with them without the responsibilities of rearing them. The love and attention we give them builds their self-esteem. Their interest in our company and in our stories reminds us of our importance to our families. We offer each other the sense of belonging not only to our families but to the human family.

As grandparents and as senior citizens, we are gaining an increasing amount of power in our society not only in the political arena but in the moral leadership of our society. We really do have much to offer even though there is a tendency to disparage the elderly. This is not the fact in the power structures of our society, however, to wit the number of people in their seventies and eighties in political office. We can advocate for the interests of the elderly, not only of our own but of those of us who are subjected to elder ageism and abuse. But most importantly we are aware of the interests and needs of future generations. We are in a position to be powerful advocates for children and parents. Because we are not motivated by advocacy for children that really is advocacy for adults, we can truly advocate the interests of children.

As grandparents, we are crucial resources for our families. But the art of grandparenting requires commitment, understanding, practice, and perseverance. We can offer approval, loving delight of our grandchildren, and reliable support for our own offspring. We are the link between the past and the present and even the future! It is through our grandchildren that we and humanity itself flow in the stream of life.

The philosopher Robert Nozick said it well:

We all might seriously weigh spending our penultimate years in endeavors to benefit others -- in adventures to advance the cause of truth, goodness, beauty, or holiness -- not going gentle into that good night or raging against the dying of the light but, near the end, shining our light most brightly.

Copyright © 1998 Jack C. Westman.

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