Sal Greco says he is his five grandchildren's "big toy."Greco, of Hampton, loves to play and do things with his grandkids: Max. 8; Sam, 6; Alex, 5; Zoe, 3; and Nico, 1 1/2. Greco, an artist, often paints in his studio with some of his grandkids, and sometimes takes them to the tennis courts with him. He takes some of the kids miniature-golfing, and just plays silly, everyday games when "Papa," as he's called, baby-sits the grandkids a few times a week. Greco's wife, Terri -- whom the kids call "GiGi" -- also does activities with the grandkids, like baking and reading with them."They all love us," says Sal Greco, 65. "When they see Papa, they know Papa's going to do something. They love to come here. ... They just have fun."Grandmas and grandpas these days have evolved and expanded from their yesteryear role that often focused on talking, nurturing and lap-sitting. Today's grandparents often spend more energy on doing fun, active things with their grandchildren, and playing with them. Grandparents have taken on a buddy and playmate characteristic, along with their role as nurturers."When you think of a grandparent, you think of someone kind of old and gray, sitting in a rocking chair," says Dr. Lillian Carson, author of "The Essential Grandparent: A Guide to Making a Difference."
"I like to say we're off our rockers now," Carson says.
A main reason for increased grandparent-kid involvement, particularly with physical activities, comes from the health concerns of baby boomers who have taken better care of themselves and stayed in better shape than their predecessors, experts say.
"Grandparents these days are dressed in gym shorts, and striding alongside their grandkids," says DJ McQuade-Lancaster, of Chula Vista, Calif. She is the coordinator for the National Grandparents Day Council, which promotes the holiday -- celebrated on Sunday -- and gives awards at the state and national level to exceptional grandparents.
"They do instead of talk," McQuade-Lancaster, 70, says of grandparents. She once heard from a man who took his 70-something grandfather skydiving.
Nora Dowd Eisenhower, Pennsylvania's secretary of aging in Harrisburg, says that these days, 50-something can be the new 40-something, with advances in medicine and increases in health and fitness levels. That gives many baby-boomer grandparents -- many of whom are still working -- the self-image of being middle-aged, not old grandparents sitting in the rocking chair.
"That has really transformed the relationship and the identity of the term 'grandparents,' " Eisenhower says. "They are just not sitting on a porch teaching kids about what happened when they're little. They're very hands-on. ... I think it's part of the changing face of retirement."
It's not only younger "grand-boomers" who are more active with their grandchildren: many older grandparents also play frequently with their grandkids. Gina Miller of Natrona Heights calls her next-door mother, Betty Chick, an "84-year-old 40-year-old."Miller is one of seven children, and her mother always loved to play with her kids, whether it be playing jacks, cutting out paper dolls or instigating "water battles" in the neighborhood. Now, Chick -- who has 14 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren -- still plays frequently with the kids in her life, and even travels with them. One of "Bet-Bet's" favorite games with her great-grandchildren is pretending to be a student when they act out a school classroom: the kids get to be teacher and principal."I have good health and a lot of energy, and I've always worked hard; that's the key to everything," says Chick. "Somebody said it's the outlook I have. ... I can't believe I have great-grandkids. I've always had a lot of energy. ... I'm grateful to God for what I have."For local grandparents, especially if their grandkids come from a household where both parents work, frequent baby-sitting offers a built-in opportunity to spend more time and do more things together, says McQuade-Lancaster, a grandmother of three. For grandparents who don't live in the same area as their grandkids, technology, outside of the traditional phone call, can help them stay involved. Sharing videos and pictures on the internet, as well as e-mails, can allow greater involvement and communication.
Patricia Hresko, 70, of Ruffdale, Westmoreland County, lives across the state from her grandkids: Morgan, 10, and Christopher, 16. Every year, she and her husband, Joseph, try to take each grandchild on a trip somewhere. This year, Patricia Hresko took Morgan to Lexington, Ky. for BreyerFest Global Gallop, a horse festival. Other trips have included a visit to Washington, D.C. with Christopher."Morgan said, 'This was the best vacation I ever had,' because she loves horses," Hresko says. Her grandkids live in Pottstown, Montgomery County, with her son, George, and his wife, Lisa."My son says that they love us," Hresko says.Another possible reason for greater involvement is that, because many people are having fewer children these days, grandparents have a chance to really dote on the grandchildren they do have, McQuade-Lancaster says.Pat Darbous, 66, of Latrobe, Westmoreland County, tells her grandson that she doesn't give him things: she gives him experiences. She and Eddie, 7, of Derry, get together twice a week during the summer for adventures that include going to a wave pool, going to Idlewild and SoakZone park, going pedal-boating, hiking, bike-riding and more. The outings are bonding experiences, Darbous says.
"Sometimes, I will say, 'Do you realize I don't buy you things?' " she says. "I would rather ... just be together and have fun."Grandparents' involvement with activities lets them get more emotionally connected with their grandkids, who feel like they have more to talk about and more in common, McQuade-Lancaster says.Ronald Wasilowski, 68, of Natrona Heights, says his two granddaughters help keep him young and fit. Even just a few months after undergoing a heart transplant a year and a half ago, Wasilowski went to Hilton Head, S.C., and went kayaking in the ocean with his granddaughter, Rachel, 11. Every year, he takes Rachel and Emily, 9, out on a pontoon boat in Moraine State Park. He also has taken them golfing and canoeing."I have a 19-year-old heart now, so I guess I am pretty young now," Wasilowski says.Marie Posta, 83, of Mt. Pleasant, says she can't carry any of her six great-grandchildren anymore, but she enjoys reading with them and just being around them. But when her grandkids, now adults, were children, she often came to their ball games -- and if she skipped a game, the kids would say, "Why didn't you come? When you don't come, my team loses."Doris Molnar, 61, of Coraopolis hosts an annual summer "Grandma Camp" for her nine grandchildren, ranging in age from 1-6. She and her husband, Chuck, host the boys and the girls separately, and they sleep in bunk beds in Molnar's house during their camp week. Activities have included going to drive-in movies, making crafts, going to the zoo and the Carnegie Science Center, and camping in a tent in Molnar's yard.
"We have a great time," says Molnar. She retired from her executive assistant job early this year so she could spend more time with her grandkids. "It gives the parents a break, too. ... I just want them to remember doing things with us."When she was a child, Molnar says, her grandparents seemed older, and they didn't do the same kinds of activities together.Grandparents may have become peppier and hipper, but their traditional roles still stand and are valuable, too, says Carson, a licensed clinical social worker who has a private counseling practice in Santa Barbara, Calif. The grandparent's roles in the family include providing unconditional love without the criticism and discipline that come with being a parent, she says. Grandparents also provide a sense of family history and continuity, and gives kids a connection to their past. They serve as role models, and give kids a sense of stability, safety and security, and support.Advice for grandparentsWhen you play with your grandchildren, there's more going on than meets the eye. It may look like you're just flying a kite or playing cards, but you're also doing important work. You're learning about your grandchildren, and your grandchildren are learning about you. Consider these tips from AARP for how to have fun playing with your grandkids.
--Follow their lead. Grandchildren are very good at playing; let them teach you the game they invented.--Old-fashioned play still works. Computer games are great, but introduce your grandchildren to some of the old-fashioned games you played with your own children, like board and card games.--Have fun on the go. Take a walk together, or play badminton together.--Provide them with play materials. Keep on hand a supply of arts and crafts materials, like paper, crayons, stickers, glue, sparkles and construction paper.Long-distance grandparenting?--Let your children know how important your grandchildren are to you, and ask them for help staying in touch. Give them support and encouragement, because being a parent is a hard job.--Ask the parents to send pictures frequently, and if possible, see your new grandchild in person while he or she is still an infant.--Call frequently once your grandchild is a toddler.--Send the grandchild things in the mail that are personal. For instance, you can record yourself reading children's books aloud, then send the tape to your grandchild.--If you have preteens or teens as grandchildren, be sure to show an interest in their friends, school lives and activities.--Be hip, and use technology, like e-mail and digital cameras, to communicate. But still send cards and letters the old-fashioned, handwritten way.--Make the trip to see your grandchildren as much as possible.Source: AARP