Walking past the play area on a recent trip to my local park, I saw what has become a familiar sight. A couple of women, quite clearly past childbearing age, looking after some young children. The children were all about five years old, letting off steam after a day shut in the classroom.
Heading home, I passed a neighbour, well into her sixties, walking her two grandchildren the not-inconsiderable distance back from school; something I’d seen her do day in, day out for the past four years.
What I witnessed has become the norm. Many people, post-retirement, now work as unpaid childminders for their grandchildren – just one of the many roles that those of us in our fifties, sixties and even seventies have taken on in the modern intergenerational family dynamic in recent years.
Looking forward to taking things easy?
I talk to friends in their thirties and forties and hear them wax lyrical about how they dream of the day when their kids leave home, or the day they retire and can take things easy,
I remember having those very thoughts.
Time, at last, to read Proust, to create a stunning herbaceous border, or to take a little cookery course in the art of bread-making. Never mind catching up with old friends.
I now find myself thinking, ‘Don’t you believe it’. Let me tell you, this time will not come to pass.
Those of us supposedly retired, or coming up to retirement, are far too busy for such fancies.
We’re either clinging on to our jobs beyond retirement age, training for a second or even third career, or taking on a part-time job to help top up our pensions.
In between all this, we have elderly parents in need of our care and attention and, like the women in the park and my neighbour, we have now become a generation of grandparents who are hands-on providers of childcare.
Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
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The sandwich generation
In recent years, it has been suggested that my younger friends, and their cohort, have been the ones stretched to the limit.
The term ‘the Sandwich Generation’ was first coined in 1981 to describe a generation of people, usually in their thirties and forties, who cared for their ageing parents while supporting their own children.
But as I observe my peers running around at the beck and call of every other generation in their family, I reckon those clever research people were missing a trick. We’re the No-Rest Generation who have far more responsibility than those soft-touch Sandwichers ever had to handle.
A number of factors have brought about this change.
State pension age is going up, the nuclear family is a thing of the past, and the so-called Boomerang Generation of adult children are moving back home.
The numbers of over-65s choosing to remarry after divorce or bereavement has gone up by around 50% between 2009 to 2014. This means that, as well as having had our own children later in life, who may still live at home, we’re taking on grown-up stepchildren and offspring and having to provide an alternative to expensive childcare for those who have to work.
Looks like the trip to paint Monet’s garden will have to wait.
A more fulfilling life
Of course, it’s not all bad news. We know that staying active, both mentally and physically, leads to a longer, more fulfilling life.
There’s a new hashtag on social media that gives a more positive spin on my notion of the No-Rest Generation – the Ultradults – with pictures of cool-looking 60-plus men and women exemplifying a new generation who are not going to opt for the gold watch any time soon.
The sense that life is to be lived at full-pelt, whatever your age, is everywhere. Dame Helen Mirren tells us we can look younger for longer; Dame Judi says she’s never going to retire.
It’s great to have inspirational role models, but isn’t there a happy medium? While most of us don’t want to go back to the golf, slippers and pipe image of our parents’ generation, being busier than we were in our forties isn’t my idea of a good time either.
I’ve recently got married, in my late fifties, to a widower. He has two grown-up children, and we have a beautiful granddaughter, now seven months old. But when my stepdaughter recently broached the possibility of me providing some childminding cover while she went back to work, I was struck dumb.
I’m still working pretty much full-time, am in my fourth year retraining to be a psychotherapist, and my son lives at home studying for his A-levels – for which you can read, doing absolutely nothing for himself around the home. I was torn with guilt. I know that for many grandparents childminding has become the norm, but as I’m still basically looking after my own child, when could I fit it in?
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A new role for grandparents
Many grandparents welcome this new role. It means that they have more quality time with the grandchildren, and some are now even relocating to be nearer them.
However, not all are embracing this new trend.
I know of one couple who bought a house in Spain to escape, so they could spend half the year avoiding the constant demands to look after the grandkids – it had simply become too exhausting.
Another grandma feels put-upon but doesn’t like to say ‘no’ for fear of offending her daughter. Instead, she spends her time moaning to her sister about how stressful it all is.
‘It is exhausting,’ says psychotherapist Leilani Mitchell, who looks after her eight-year-old granddaughter while her daughter works full-time. ‘I wanted to do it, but it’s definitely more tiring this time. When my granddaughter was a baby, I remember thinking how heavy she was to lift and carry around – I’m sure my own daughter didn’t feel that heavy when I was younger!’
Leilani runs her own therapy training school, The Link Centre, and works weekends so that she can do childminding during the week. ‘When my daughter was young there was only one grandmother at the school gate, looking quite conspicuous, but this time round there’s quite a collection of us.’
It’s the sense of duty that she and many like her find so draining. ‘It’s very restrictive. I have a lot of responsibilities. Having to remember what she’s got to take to school, running my own business, thinking about my elderly relatives’ needs. I dream of having a responsibility-free life, and I wonder what that will be like and whether I’ll ever get there.’
As for me, I’m hoping that once I’ve completed my training I’ll be able to take on childminding duties, for one day a week at least.
Looks like that herbaceous border is going to be put on hold again this year.
Saga readers say...
'Very true; we are three grandmothers looking after grandchildren so my daughter can work. We are all still working so we take different days off. It’s like going back in time.' Heidi, via Facebook
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