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Here come the great-grandparents (2006-11-02)

Amy Altman never knew the great-grandmother for whom she was named. She died before Ms. Altman was born. And though her mother shared memories of the family matriarch, Ms. Altman, 28, never forged that singular connection that comes from knowing someone firsthand.

But history, in this case, will not repeat itself. Ms. Altman’s 5-month-old son, Benjamin, will learn family traditions, lore and recipes not from photo albums and makeshift cookbooks, but from the mouths of his great-grandparents, four of whom are alive and have already rocked him in their arms.

“During the holidays every year, we always make my grandmother’s noodle pudding,” said Ms. Altman, who works in e-commerce in Los Angeles and plans to visit the children’s great-grandparents, ages 74 to 98, in Florida and New York several times a year. “I think it’s going to be great that he will get to know the great-grandma whose noodle pudding it is.”

There have always been great-grandparents. But because Americans are living longer and are healthier now than in previous generations, demographers say more people are likely to have at least one living great-grandparent, and to have that great-grandparent in their lives longer.

Kenneth W. Wachter, the chairman of the department of demography at the University of California, Berkeley, has estimated that by 2030, more than 70 percent of 8-year-olds will likely have a living great-grandparent. It is a phenomenon that Kevin Kinsella, the head of the Aging Studies branch of the United States Census Bureau, has referred to as a great-grandparent boom.

“We know we’re living a lot longer than we used to,” Mr. Kinsella said. “It seems logical if people are living well into their 90s now, and there are centenarians, a lot of people are going to be great-grandparents.”

Yet no one seems to be keeping track of the number of great-grandparents. Not the Census Bureau, the National Institute on Aging nor the AARP. Mr. Kinsella said the Census Bureau does not even know how many grandparents there are, let alone great-grandparents.

Merril Silverstein, a professor of gerontology and sociology at the University of Southern California, said only rough estimates exist. “Maybe it’s a story that we don’t know,” he said.

Without official studies, scholars have had to extrapolate figures by examining trends in longevity, fertility and divorce and remarriage. But the main indicator that there are more great-grandparents is growth in the size of the very aged. With life expectancy nearing 78, there are so many people older than 65 that in the last few years the Census Bureau created a “100 plus” age category, Mr. Kinsella said. In 2000, there were more than 50,000 centenarians, a 35 percent increase from 1990, and the bureau estimates the total will surpass 580,000 by 2040.

Whatever the number of great-grandparents, demographers agree that American family trees today often resemble a beanpole: thin (because there are fewer children in each generation) and long (because there are more living generations).

“I feel very young,” said Columbia Barbara Allen, 82, a great-grandmother who lifts weights two to three times a week at a gym, attends watercolor classes and cooks lunch nearly every day for a daughter and a granddaughter who live nearby. She and her husband, Alfred, also 82, of Utica, N.Y., go on picnics and attend movies and car shows with their two great-grandchildren, Ava, 3, and Christian, 9. “We take quite a few trips together,” Mrs. Allen said. “It’s a wonderful companionship.”

William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said the proliferation of great-grandparents is “a trend that will probably continue” despite some countervailing factors, like delayed marriage and women having children later in life.

Women who delay childbirth tend to have higher educations and better careers and take better care of themselves, said Deborah Carr, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Rutgers University. “These are the factors that will enable them to live to be 80 and 90 years old,” she said. That idea is supported by the Census Bureau, which reported a strong correlation between education and health in a study last year called “65-Plus in the United States.”

Robust multigeneration families are such a new phenomenon that no one is clear about what a great-grandparent’s role in the family should be. “It’s an ambiguous role,” said Dr. Silverstein, who explained that as a great-grandparent you are separated more in age from the rest of the family and potentially perplexed about your level of authority. And if you are a step-great-grandparent, he said, that can further complicate matters. “It sort of boggles the mind,” he said.

Dr. Silverstein, describing a study published in 2004 by the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California, said that some 200 great-grandparents were asked what they thought about themselves as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. What researchers learned, he said, was that “there’s an ordered reduction in the importance of each role.”

“Most of our investments are in generations that are closest to us,” he said.

Still, there are great-grandparents who feel that being among society’s oldest affords them free time that they simply did not have when they were mere grandparents. And it is time they want to spend with their great-grandchildren.

“There’s no hurry about anything,” said Ruth Gerard, 75, of Supply, N.C., who not only worked while she was a grandmother but also helped take care of her grandchildren. In April she and her husband, Harold, also 75, took their three great-grandchildren to see the Battleship Wisconsin at the National Maritime Center in Norfolk, Va.

But living independently means great-grandparents do not necessarily live near their great-grandchildren. Only 78,000 households consist of four generations, according to the Census Bureau, which tabulated that number for the first time in 2001.

“We’re sorry that we’re not closer,” said Mrs. Gerard, whose great-grandchildren live in New York. “We miss not being able to be in their lives every day like we did with the grandchildren.”

Yet if great-grandchildren are in regular contact with their great-grandparents, even if they do not live with or near them, they may grow up with more positive attitudes toward older people and a greater sense of connectedness to their families and to their cultural traditions, said Dr. Carr, who has studied the sociology of aging.

When Shira Moskowitz, 13, was asked if there was anything she had learned from her great-grandmother, Diane Kaufman, who died 10 years ago, she replied: “That family was really important.”

Shira remembers more mundane things, too, like how Nana Diane played with her hair and how they spent afternoons making sandwiches with sardines and crackers. “I don’t even know what the crackers were called but I called them Nana crackers,” Shira said. “I haven’t eaten them ever since she passed away.”

Like many children who spend time with their great-grandparents, Shira’s brother, Ari, 10, seemed to be keenly aware of their significance and demonstrated an unchildlike level of respect.

“I’d never get upset at him,” said Ari, 10, who was close with Nana Diane’s husband, Dr. Justus Kaufman (a k a Pop Pop Justus), who died two years ago. “You didn’t even think of starting an argument with him. With my dad, I always did.”

Cherished as they may be, great-grandparents can pose challenges to the sandwich generation. Caring for someone age 80 or older was something that relatively few people 50 to 64 worried about in 1950, according to a Census study called “An Aging World: 2001.” But that is not the case anymore.

“You only get so many hours, and if you’ve got to provide care on both sides of the age spectrum, that’s a problem,” Mr. Kinsella said. “It can be a very stressful activity.”

He added that people used to think parents left money to their children and “that was that” but it has evolved into “a two-way street,” because baby boomers often have to help support their parents into their 80s and beyond.

No matter the challenges, a great-grandparent can be a repository of knowledge and advice for the younger generations, even those that are, well, not quite so young.

“My father is truly a patriarch in our family,” said Pennie Meiselman, 63, of Manhattan, who works with her father, Samuel Sack, in the family business, Saxony Carpet, also in Manhattan. “He has been very involved in everyone’s lives,” Mrs. Meiselman said. “Even though I’m a grandmother, I defer to him. Sometimes I still feel like the kid.”

And while Mrs. Meiselman has the benefit of her father’s perspective, he, like many great-grandparents, has the luxury of witnessing the continuance of his family line. It is a joy that he and other great-grandparents cannot easily put into words.

“The most difficult thing in the world to explain is the reaction when you see a great-grandchild,” said Mr. Sack, 93, who has three great-grandchildren (Jordyn, 6; Morgan, 3; and Yehuda, 7 months) and works three days a week at Saxony Carpet, which he founded in 1947.

“It’s a great thrill,” he said, pausing for a moment to choose a fitting analogy. “Better than the Cyclone in Coney Island.”

Source: www.NYTimes.com • Stephanie Rosenbloom

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