Ageing with attitude: Up close and personal with next generation

The positive ageing benefits arising from close ties between grandparents and their grandchildren can be far reaching, says Margaret Jennings.

Oliver Ryan from Moycullen, with his grandson Charlie Curling, who nominated him for the Specsavers Grandparent of the Year competition

“I’M 78 but I feel like 30 because Charlie keeps me young — he’s unbelievable. He lives two houses down. 

"I bring him up to school and my wife Jacqueline collects him. I sit and do all the homework with him and we have great fun — he’s laughing all the time”.

Oliver Ryan from Moycullen in Co Galway has had an interesting life so far — he spent many years travelling to Eastern Europe working with the EU at restructuring the educational system there, after teaching for 20 years in a secondary school in South Africa. 

And even now that he is retired from his job as a lecturer at the Department of Education in NUIG, he still does some teaching, giving Masters courses once a year in Las Vegas.

But it is the everyday life that he shares with his 10-year-old grandson Charlie, his daughter Fiona’s little boy, that now puts a spring in his step. 

“We are working on an old train set that I had way back — we’re fixing it. We have been making cards for his mother on the computer and we have a lake in the garden and the two of us go down fishing,” says Oliver.

The feeling is mutual. Charlie nominated his granddad for the Specsaver Grandparent of the Year competition a few months ago and Oliver took the Connacht regional title in the competition.

At the time Charlie said his granddad was “special” because he took him fishing, helped with his homework and told him great stories of his adventures in life.

But although Oliver has many colourful tales to tell of countries he’s visited, he now gets a thrill from observing the pattern of life’s story repeating; he also used to teach his son Ronan to fish when he was a child. 

“It means everything to experience that. I’m now looking down the line. I hope it’s the start of a trend,” he says.

His other grandchild, Samuel, aged eight and who is Ronan’s son, lives in Britain and joins in the fishing when he visits.

Research suggests the positive ageing benefits which arise from the connection between grandparents and grandkids can be far reaching.

The most recent study, which included around 500 adults from the Berlin Aging Study (BASE) — a database of people aged 70 or older living in the former West Berlin — found that grandparents who were involved in helping out had a 37% lower mortality rate than their peers who were non-helpers.

The study didn’t prove direct cause and effect, and it did not include grandparents who were full-time carers.

In the case of grandparents who mind children full-time it need not always be a beneficial experience if the situation is overwhelming for them. 

For instance research at Trinity College Dublin published in 2015 linked to The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) project found that carrying out more than 60 hours of childcare a month had a negative impact on grandparents’ health.

However, three of the biggest influences identified in positive ageing research for helping us stay healthy emotionally and physically are staying socially connected, helping others (or volunteering) and having meaning or purpose in later life, all of which can be experienced in connecting with the next generation.

Some other reasons why grandparents might want to find excuses to share time with the grandkids are:

Staying physically active: Who said exercise can’t be fun? We are all being told to move our bodies more in order to stay supple. Running around after, or with, an energetic child will get your heart rate up nicely and your muscles flexed. 

You may be panting and red-faced or gingerly twitching as you flex your wonky knee when you play hide-and-seek, but your grandkids will love you for it — as will your body, eventually.

Brain training: They are a whizz with technology and what better way for you to learn than through play? The novelty of learning something new keeps the synapses in your brain sparking. You can also of course boost that grey matter by playing cards, chess or partaking in other old-fashioned games.

Immune system boosting: Just hugging your grandkids — or holding their hands — has been shown to decrease inflammation (which ages us quicker) — and increase our white blood cells. 

Researchers have also observed an increase in oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone, which is released by the pituitary gland and is responsible for human behaviours associated with relationships and bonding.

Emotional grounding: Watching the next generation grow up can help you put in perspective your sense of place in the cycle of life. But it can also be an excuse to act like a child again and to abandon yourself to the fun and games without giving a damn!



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