grandparentA couple of weeks back when I posted a piece about the baby boomers who don’t plan to leave any inheritance to their children, I came down rather hard on that generation. Many boomers could (rightly) argue: “But we’re not all like that!” As Mother used to say, “It takes all kinds to make a world,” and she would be correct, no matter which demographic group she might be describing.

In the last while a couple more “grandparent” stories have come to my attention; if only I’d waited and written about them all together, for a more complete trifecta of the good, the bad and the ugly.

I tend to think that retired boomers who plan to spend every cent on their own enjoyment, without thinking of their own families are, well, bad. On the other hand, many good-hearted boomers are stepping up and giving their families a great deal of help.

Less frail and more involved, today’s grandparents are shunning retirement homes and stepping in more than ever to raise grandchildren while young adults struggle in the poor economy. […] “We help out in terms of running errands, babysitting, taking the grandkids to doctors’ appointments, and for back-to-school shopping,” said Doug Flockhart of Exeter, N.H., listing some of the activities that he and his wife, Eileen, do for their five kids and seven grandchildren. But that’s just the start.

They also pitch in with health care payments for family members due to insurance gaps… […] Flockhart’s situation is increasingly common, demographers say.

“Grandparents have become the family safety net, and I don’t see that changing any time soon,” said Amy Goyer, a family expert at AARP. “While they will continue to enjoy their traditional roles, including spending on gifts for grandchildren, I see them increasingly paying for the extras that parents are struggling to keep up with — sports, camps, tutoring or other educational needs, such as music lessons.”

Moreover it is estimated that currently about 5.8 million children live with grandparents who identify as household heads. This is up from 4.5 million in such households a decade ago. Ironically, this “granny state” spending has come about mainly because the punitive tax regimes of the nanny state (largely brought upon western society by the boomer generation) make it all but impossible for ordinary families to survive financially on a modest income. As the article states: “The middle class is so much less well-off than it used to be.” It might be worth asking why—indeed it ought to be an election issue in the US.

Is there any irony, or is it just poetic justice that the catastrophic failure of the nanny state has forced families back to what they’d been since the dawn of time — a mutually dependent community of (pardon the phrase) caring and sharing? America, welcome back to what much of the world never gave up on. Don’t get me wrong, however. The economy in the West still needs fixing.

And so does the institution of the family. Which brings me to a story from British Columbia, Canada, which sort of fits the “ugly” category. It almost defies credence, but evokes plenty of pathos all round:

Shirley Anderson, 73, is suing four of her children, asking that they each provide her with $750 a month.

The children, who are now all grown, claim they don’t owe their mother anything because she abandoned them when they were teens.

[Anderson] claims she receives $1,500 a month from the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security, but can’t afford her medications and has to rely on the food bank to make ends meet. […]

One of her sons, Ken, 47, says he has no intention of paying more. He says his upbringing was awful and that he was “basically abandoned” at age 15. He says he and his siblings left home in their teens and rarely saw their mother again after that.

He said he and his wife Sherry need money for their own retirements and their children’s education. […] “We’re getting older and we’ve got to retire soon. We’ve got two kids that we’ve got to put through post-secondary school, and having to pay her just takes it away from my kids. It’s just not right,” he said.

Interestingly, the comments on this Canadian story (many from seniors) overwhelmingly side with the children. As more than one respondent declared: “You reap what you sow.”  

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...