Adopt these simple tips to be a happier, healthier, and more connected grandparent.
When you get to a certain age, you have some choices to make about how you spend your time. If you’re lucky enough to be a grandparent, the choice is pretty easy.
“You could be playing with your grandchildren, entering their world, and looking at it through their eyes. Or you could be listening to your friend talk about her hip surgery,” says Georgia Witkin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York City.
Her suggestion: Opt for time with the kids.
Why? You already know your grandchildren are the cutest, smartest, and sweetest humans ever. But you probably didn’t know that hanging out with them can make you healthier and smarter too. Just becoming a grandparent is linked with fewer depressive symptoms among women. And as that little baby grows into a full-of-personality kid, the relationship the two of you form can have a positive impact on your physical and mental health.
Research published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that grandparents who provided moderate caregiving — which translates to about four to 10 hours a week — were more likely to be physically active, experience greater well-being, have better language skills, and feel a stronger purpose in life. Plus, they’re less likely to be frail.
Those little ones can even make you feel younger. One study showed that caring for grandchildren can have a “rejuvenating effect,” making you feel at least two years younger than those who don’t care for their little ones. And the icing on the cake: Grandparenting may even help you live longer. According to research in Evolution and Human Behavior, grandparents who looked after their grandkids had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than their peers who didn’t.
Those are all great reasons to spend time with the grands, but the best reason of all is the simple joy of being together.
“Your job is to make those kids feel that they’re special,” Witkin says. “They will never remember that you did their laundry, but they will never forget when you splashed with them in that plastic pool in the backyard.”
There’s also the added joy of knowing that your positive relationship helps your grandchildren too. In a study of kids whose parents had gone through a divorce, a close relationship with Grandma and Grandpa helped them bounce back from the trauma. And other research shows that adolescents who are close to their grandparents report greater well-being.
What to Do with Your Grandkids
Looking for some ways to fill those happy hours? You don’t need to do anything fancy.
“The most amazing part of being a grandparent is that you get to see the world with new eyes,” says Kathy Kinsner, senior manager of parent resources at Zero to Three, an organization focused on helping parents give their kids the best start in life. “Everything is new to them — a walk through the yard to look at the ants or pick up pinecones and leaves. Skip the flashcards and the apps and pay attention. Don’t worry about coming up with activities, just follow their lead.”
The best part, according to Kinsner: “When it comes to grandchildren, you’re not responsible for how they turn out. You can enjoy them as humans by being open and accepting and just having fun.”
Here are four simple ideas to get you started:
1. Go Outside and Play
As a SilverSneakers member, you already know how important it is to stay active. So just go outside and play.
“It’s a great way for all of you to get exercise,” Witkin says. “The kids will give you plenty of opportunities to bend and squat, and they’ll definitely make you move faster. Teaching them to ride a bike, for example, will give you more exercise than you’d ever get at the gym.”
Plus, Witkin points out, you’ll be burning up adrenaline and reducing your own stress. “That preserves your heart health, improves blood pressure, and boosts your brain power. You’re working your whole body, and that adds years to your life.”
Not sure what to do? Go old school: Organize a game of tag or red-light-green-light or dig out the Hula-Hoops and have a competition. Rainy day? Play hide-and-seek in the living room or turn on some music and lead a parade around the house. “You’ll be bonding with the kids, plus you’ll be staying healthy. At the end of the day, you’ll be tired, but that’s a good fatigue.”
Any movement is good, both for your grandchildren and for you. New research from the American Heart Association shows that older adults who take part in light physical activity for 150 minutes a week cut their risk of dying from any cause by a whopping 67 percent. On the other hand, more sedentary folks have a 32 percent higher risk of dying. The takeaway: Keep moving!
2. Tell Stories
As a grandparent, you’ve got the keys to your family’s story — the good, the bad, and the weird. That’s a cool treasure trove to share with the little ones.
“Storytelling is really good for our spirit,” says Amanda Dornfeld, a human development and relationships educator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Winnebago County. “Get out the photo album and tell your grandchildren about your childhood, about how you and your spouse met, about the time you went on a trip to the lake. Recalling the details of your life is a way to reflect back on good times and difficult moments, and it offers great opportunities to connect.”
In a Finnish study, sharing intergenerational stories helped the kids and their elders strengthen emotional connections, preserve important traditions that might otherwise get lost, and boost a sense of well-being among storytellers and listeners alike.
Storytelling is also good for your mental health — and your grandchildren’s. A new study from the National Academy of Sciences found that after just 30 minutes of storytelling, hospitalized children who listened to stories showed a marked increase in levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, a decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone), and lower levels of pain.
3. Teach — and Learn from Them
Chances are you have something you love to do, and sharing it with your grandchildren can be a great joy.
“Teaching helps us build our brain capacity,” Dornfeld explains, “and it even helps us relearn the skill ourselves. It can be anything from woodworking and fishing to sewing and baking — you name it.”
And don’t forget to let your grandchildren teach you things as well — or make a plan to learn something together, like how to grow orchids or tulips. Or you can plant an herb garden, then learn to cook something with it. That shared experience of digging in the dirt is profoundly good for your mental health, Dornfeld says.
What’s more, studies show that the act of teaching a skill to another person enhances your own learning. So brush up your old skills and discover a new one with your grandchild. “Learning new things together has cognitive benefits,” says Dornfeld, “and that shared experience keeps us more connected.”
4. Read Together
One of the best bonding experiences of all is curling up with a good book. “There’s such a strong emotional connection when you read to kids,” Kinsner says. “It’s helpful in so many ways: Studies show that reading fiction makes people more empathetic and helps them take another person’s perspective. It can help kids identify their own emotions and solve problems. You can ask your grandchild, ‘What would you do if you were the character in this story?’”
When the story ends, the fun is just beginning. “When you take what you’re reading and go out into the world, the ideas leap off the page,” Kinsner says. Depending on the plotline, perhaps you and your grandchild will want to make a pizza together or go outside and explore the backyard. You can even make your own book with index cards and crayons. (Here are some fun picture books for babies and toddlers.)
Even if your grandchildren have progressed beyond picture books, you can still enjoy reading together. How about a book club, where you both read the same book and talk about it together over a cup of hot chocolate? One of the best things about reading is that you never outgrow it.
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