Grandparents: An Untapped Resource

Gary Drevitch

“We’re all about ledor vador and passing from one generation to the next,” Bacharach said. “It’s critical. We’re trying to connect grandparents to our children and connect the past to the future of Klal Yisrael.” The students and grandparents made more than 400 butterflies for the project, just one example of how schools today are finding success by welcoming the older generation into their classrooms. The benefits are clear for the students, for parents with overtaxed schedules, and just maybe, for development funds needing a boost in a down economy.

Today’s Grandparents: A New Model

The country’s 70 million grandparents represent one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most powerful segments of the U.S. population. Three in ten American adults are grandparents—an all-time high. And today’s grandparents are younger than ever before—the average age of first-time grandmothers in the United States is 50; for first-time grandpas, the average age is 54. Overall, 54 percent of grandparents are younger than 65. By 2015, 60 percent of grandparents will be Baby Boomers. recently commissioned Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics, to create The Grandparent Economy, a wide-reaching study that sheds new light on the economic clout of the country’s grandparents—and their commitment to their grandchildren. Here’s what he discovered:

  • Grandparents control more than half the financial assets in the United States, and despite the recession, they haven’t stopped spending on their grandkids. Francese estimates that grandparents will spend $52 billion on their grandkids this year, $32 billion of it on school tuition and related education costs.
  • Grandparents lead 37 percent of the country’s households, about 44 million in all, and trends show that number rising in the years ahead. Fortunately, they’re well-prepared for the responsibilities, not only because they’re experienced parents, but because households headed by 55- to 64-year-olds have the highest net worth of any age group’s—and 55 percent of grandparents do not carry a mortgage, putting them in a relatively good position to weather the current economic downturn.

The best-educated and most-skilled grandparents in history are prepared to bring their professional experience—and their bake-sale recipes—to their grandchildren’s schools. All administrators have to do is ask.

Boomers Making an Impact

The baby-boom generation has never been one to sit back passively. When they get involved, they dive in with all of their considerable passion and energy. As grandparents, they’re not content to ask kids, “What are you doing in school?” during rote weekly phone calls. They want to see for themselves and they want to improve their grandchildren’s experiences, at day schools and elsewhere.

As a young mother, Mary Bourgeois of Metairie, Louisiana, spent countless hours volunteering at her children’s grade school. She was a “Room Mom” who baked, helped out in the classroom, and organized holiday celebrations. Today, the 62-year-old grandmother of five is president of the 172-member Grandparents Club at St. Philip Neri School in Metairie, where her 6-year-old grandson is in kindergarten. “I pour a lot of work into this,” Bourgeois says, “because I’m very passionate” about promoting grandparent involvement in schools.

St. Philip Neri principal Carol Stack deploys her school’s Grandparents Club on campus in a range of roles, from reading and science volunteers to lunch and recess monitors. “They can fill in and provide role models and examples,” Stack says.

At HAMC, Bacharach says, several grandparents volunteer in the school library; some also chair special committees of the parents association. “That’s a great way to bring in other grandparents,” she says, because it shows them that grandparents can take on substantial responsibilities in the school community.

How to Get Grandparents Involved

In every area of need for your school, there’s probably a grandparent in the community who can contribute and make a difference. The key is getting to know them, inviting them in, giving them real tasks, and making them feel appreciated. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Reach out. HAMC reaches out to local and long-distance grandparents in a variety of ways. When the school sends e-mails to families promoting upcoming events or sharing classroom news, it includes grandparents whenever possible. Additionally, each week Bacharach sends about a dozen families personal e-mails with photos of their children. Parents always tell her how much grandparents appreciate seeing the pictures. “It really keeps them in the loop of what kids are doing,” Bacharach says, and that gets them thinking about how they can get involved.
  • Let them know what you need. Some grandparents are great musicians; others are expert storytellers. Let your families know what your needs are and they just may tell you there’s a grandparent ready to step in. Reginald Rose, 68, a grandfather of 10 in Tupelo, Mississippi, brought his expertise as a master gardener into his grandchildren’s elementary school when he began volunteering six years ago. Now he teaches regular science-enrichment activities at two Tupelo schools. At a time when schools may face budget cuts, volunteer grandparents who can provide quality classroom and after-school enrichment activities may be especially welcome. Encourage grandparents who say they want to help out to make an appointment to discuss how their skills might best be put to use.
  • Don’t inadvertently cause family stress. One never knows a family’s internal dynamic. When a grandparent comes to you ready to volunteer, double-check that they’ve already cleared it with the parents—and the children. For a grandparent, “If you’re going into your grandchild’s school, certainly you should talk with the parent first,” suggests Illinois state PTA president and grandmother of four Jean Razunas, 58. “I would even communicate with the child and see what his or her opinions are.” Many, if not most, kids are excited to see their grandparents at school, but if a child is self-conscious about it for whatever reason, it’s better to find out before someone starts volunteering.
  • Start a grandparent club. Launching a grandparent club is a great way to get grandparents involved and to assess what they can contribute, if you’re ready to commit the time to finding roles for the group. Jan Harp Domene, 57, the president of the national PTA and a grandmother of five in Anaheim, California, says, “I call the grandparents our legacy leaders. They’ve been down this road” and already know what parents associations can accomplish given the necessary support. Her organization is stepping up efforts to recruit grandparents nationwide this year.

A Payoff in and out of the Classroom

“Over the past few years, we’ve gone from mostly one-parent-working households to more two-parents-working households,” Bacharach says. In practical terms, this shift has meant more grandparents doing drop-off and pick-up at the school and coming to special events in lieu of parents. “But you know what? I think it’s great. They don’t know what a service they’re doing for the children. There’s such a special bond that forms when grandparents are in the day-to-day lives of their grandkids.”

That bond is part of the “chain of love,” says contributing editor Dr. Georgia Witkin, a psychologist specializing in family relationships and stress management—and a grandmother of three. It’s important, she says, for children to learn that more than one adult can care for them, and to understand, even subconsciously, that if anything should happen to their parents, their grandparents will be there for them. Seeing grandparents waiting to take them home from school, making them dinner when working couples can’t get home from work on time, or just giving them the undivided attention that bubbes and zaydes are famous for—it all helps to boost their feelings of security and self-confidence. A recent large-scale survey of adolescents between 11 and 16 found a strong connection between involved grandparents and teen well-being. In fact, adolescents who had daily contact with at least one grandparent were less likely to use recreational drugs.

And, of course, schools can hope that grandparents who spend time in their classrooms, and who become connected to the spirit and promise of their student bodies, will become donors as well. “For day schools, grandparents are an untapped resource both in terms of gift-giving and volunteerism,” Bacharach says. Several grandparents participate in her annual campaign and contribute to restricted funds, “and we have some grandparents who pay tuition for their grandchildren—that’s definitely a growing group. But,” she adds, “there could always be more.” ♦

Gary Drevitch is Senior Editor of He can be reached at

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HaYidion Parents Autumn 2009
Fall 2009