Ask a baby-boomer how old his grandparents were when he was growing up. He might not have a firm number, but he'll remember them, definitively, as old. Always old. Born old.
Boomers are in for a shock, though, when they do the math; many of those elderly folks in faded photographs were only 50 or 60. They were -- ahem -- just about their age.
Which begs the question: Are grandparents really younger these days? Or do they just seem younger -- goodbye gray bun and pumping water from the well; hello Lady Clairol and pumping iron?
It turns out to be a tough question to answer, since no one keeps these statistics. We checked with the New York State Office for the Aging, the United States Census Bureau and several universities, hunting for grandparenting figures.
"This is not the kind of data you could readily obtain," said Jan Mutchler, a former UB sociology professor, now professor of gerontology and fellow of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Family relationships -- as opposed to living arrangements -- are not (statistically) assessed regularly by anyone."
Her sense, though, is that there is change in both directions. "Much is made in the news about extremely young grandparents, in their 40s and even 30s. But some people are having children later in life, so grandparents enter that role later."
Grandparenting expert Marc Baranowski, professor of human development at the University of Maine, thinks today's first-time grandparent, with an average age of early 50s, "may even be slightly older than in the past, because adolescent pregnancy rates have declined." Baranowski says that they will play increasingly important roles in family life.
"Children should have as many caring adults in their world as they can," he said recently by phone from his Orono, Maine, office. "Especially with more single-parent families and families where both parents work, grandparents can be another source of that caring adult.
"Grandparents can also defuse some negative aspects of the parent/child relationship. They can be a little less biased, a little more objective.
"They can see things outside the family crucible and provide a calming influence for the kids."
Kate Dust, director of education for EduKids Early Childhood Centers, says the centers encourage grandparent involvement. "We tell the moms to bring their own mothers into the centers with them when they are making child care decisions," says Dust. "Grandma's support and reassurance is invaluable."
And, in a new twist on "taking care of the grandchildren," Dust says that many young grandparents have jobs of their own and don't baby-sit during the workday -- but they pay the childcare bill.
Baranowski sees today's younger grandparents energized by what he calls the "second chance theme."
"It's very common, especially in men. I did a study on grandfathers, and a lot of them said they were too busy working when they had their own children, or it was before the time when men got into (parenting) things.
"You can see the sort of delight in these grandfathers, when they express that things are going to be different with their grandchildren."< Today's young grandparents are rewriting the rule book. Less formal and more hands-on than their own grandparents, they are likely to be still active in careers and leisure activities when they become grandparents.
"Boomer grandparents are healthier, wealthier, more youthful and better-educated than their own grandparents," write Kathryn and Allan Zullo in "The Nanas and the Papas -- a Boomer's Guide to Grandparenting" (Andrews McMeel, 1998).
Kate Dust sees these new-style grandparents at EduKids every day. "I mistake some of the children's grandparents for the parents, because they look beautiful. And," she laughs, "they are my age!"
We talked with some especially young -- in both age and attitude -- Western New York grandparents. Read on.
Joy, not worry
Kenmore residents Margaret Baish, 47, and her husband Vince, owners of Vince's Pizza Plus on Kenmore Avenue, are first-time grandparents of Ariel, who was 17 days old at the time of this writing. Ariel is nearby in Clarence, and Margaret feels "blessed."
"Family is very, very important to me," she says. "Having a grandchild takes you to whole new level of life experience. You go on. Your children have given life."
Margaret didn't feel older when she became a grandmother. "I'm glad I'm such a young grandmother; I can pick up and see her anytime I want. Everything is happening just the way it is supposed to. I had Mindy (Ariel's mother) when I was 23; now she's 23, having Ariel."
She readily admits that having a granddaughter is different than having her own children, now ages 23, 20 and 14. "It didn't hurt!" she laughs. "Unlike Mindy, I get to feel great the whole time.
"Ariel is my joy, not my worry."
So far away
Forty-four-year-old Laurie Turton of South Buffalo loves being a child care aide in the infant room at EduKids. Married 24 years, Laurie's only grandchild -- 1-year-old Christian -- lives in Nixa, Mo., a 17-hour drive.
"My baby is far away," she says, explaining why she loves to be near the babies at work. "It would be great to do what everyone says grandparents love to do -- spoil him and give him back -- but I can't do that."
She hopes he'll call her "Nana," although he's not talking yet, of course. "He babbles on the phone."
Her four children are ages 24, 19, 13 and 7 ("I had a baby every time I sent one off to kindergarten," she laughs), and she says having a grandchild helps her relive when her own kids were little.
And yes, this forty-something did feel older when she became a grandmother. "But I still have my 7-year-old to keep me young."
Play, stay together
East Aurora resident Sue Brazill, 54, was only 46 when she and her husband Jim started having grandchildren. Quinn (7), Emma (5) and Kiera (1) live nearby in South Wales. A special education teacher with Erie II BOCES and girls field hockey coach, Sue says they squeeze plenty of grandchild-time into their busy lives by staying active together.
"I try to include the kids with me when I coach or when we ride bikes or ski. I love to play with them. They love the fact that I crawl through the jungle gym with them.
"They are so perceptive and honest and innocent. And the first person that takes away that spirit is going to have to come through me!"
Do people mistake her for the grandkids' mom? "Yes, especially when we are out skiing," she laughs. "And I don't mind it at all."
"I feel young'
Don Wilson, 47, owner of Wilson Environmental Technologies, doesn't hesitate when asked if becoming a grandfather at age 42 made him feel older.
"Absolutely. Unequivocally. Without a doubt. It made me realize how old I was.
"I feel young; I mean, I'm not graying at a rapid rate. But the realization that my son was having a child -- it made me feel older. But it was also very exciting. It had been a long time since there were any little babies around."
Wilson lives in Colden with his wife, Pam, and their two young boys, Dean and Dan. Five-year-old granddaughter Sydney lives in Alabama with her parents; Don was only 19 and in a previous marriage when Sydney's father, Donald, was born.
It's a long-distance relationship that Don and Pam work hard to keep close.
"We saw them over Easter vacation," Don says, when he and Pam took their sons and met Donald's family at Disney World for a fun-for-all family vacation. Does this young grandfather get mistaken for Sydney's daddy? He chuckles.
"I suppose it could happen. If her own father wasn't around."
"A special gift'
Erie County Public Library clerk Debbie Stoehr, 44, and her husband, Bud, love being grandparents to 2-month-old Kayla. Parents of four children, ages 17 to 24, the West Falls residents are "just having fun."
Debbie was determined not to feel older. "I just told myself I'm going to have a great time."
She likes being able to step back and not feel "the extreme fear" that parents sometimes have. "Parents look at the immediate. I am another generation, and I can see the big picture.
"I see this baby as a special gift, to come and expand and grow to know us."
Like other young grandparents who are still raising their own children, Debbie finds it hard to withhold "expert" advice. "It's their baby, not mine. But -- I know how to take care of that baby!" she laughs. "So, you just back off. It's a lot like letting go of your kids.
"My son is real good at telling me to back off. They have handled things well, and I can relax. I know that they are going to do the best for Kayla."
As for gifts, this book-lover plans to keep it classic. "I just gave Kayla her first book. "God Gave Us You,' by Lisa Tawn Bergen."