When our first child was born, our families promptly travelled the length and breadth of the country to visit us. None of our immediate family lived within 2 hours’ drive, we didn’t live near grandparents and some relatives were quite prepared to make a regular 10 hour round trip to see the baby.
Many of our friends had family on their doorstep, but this wasn’t something that we had given too much thought to as it would never apply to us.
During the 2 year gap between our children being born, my wife was extremely busy. She maintains that it was coincidence, but in quick succession she persuaded one sister to move down to Devon to retrain as a teacher, another to marry one of our friends, and finally – her coup de grâce – she managed to talk her parents into ‘temporarily’ relocating on the basis that the rest of the family had and it would be silly not to. Within a relatively short period of time, we now had a strong family support network on our doorstep.
On this basis, I’m probably unusually qualified to comment on whether it’s better to live near grandparents (and extended family, for that matter), given that I’ve now had experience of having a baby with no immediate family nearby, and having a second child with 5 adult family members living within a 10 minute drive.
In this article I’ll be sharing some of the benefits of living near grandparents. These include reduced risk of alzheimer’s, increased life expectancy and various health and wellbeing benefits for the grandchildren too.
We’ll also consider (very carefully!) the contrasting benefits of being a bit further away from immediate family. We’ll look at ways to make the most of time spent with long-distance relatives, and some of the boundaries and conversations that you need to have if you’re going to have a flourishing family life with grandparents living on the doorstep – particularly if you haven’t done this before.
Hopefully this article will also provide some helpful perspective for grandparents who are thinking of moving to be near their grandchildren. This is undoubtedly an incredibly valuable, sacrificial (and often necessary) act which can be an enormous benefit to your children and grandchildren. We’ll consider some of the things that you might want to talk about before you put the family home on the market and relocate across the country.
What are the Benefits of Living Near Grandparents?
I grew up in the same city as all my living grandparents. This was something that I appreciated at the time and have become increasingly thankful for as the years go by. Historically, of course, the idea of geographical separation between families was unthinkable, with the wider family playing a crucial role in the raising of children.
Grandparents have a unique and wonderful role to play in a child’s life. When I think about happy childhood experiences, many of them involve grandparents – holidays, playing in their garden during long summer holidays, Christmas, family meals and their consistent generosity and support.
I am now experiencing the benefits of grandparents from a parent’s perspective. Our parents are undoubtedly have the closest relationships with our children outside of our own. They seem to know exactly what is required when we’re struggling, or when the children are unsettled.
Psychologically there is something very different about leaving your baby with a grandparent. You don’t feel guilty, because you know that they love being involved. You don’t worry, because they raised you (and we all have those smug moments when we decide that we turned out pretty well) and because you trust them more than anybody else.
For many people, choosing to live near grandparents is an essential career and financial move. Childcare is expensive, and the prospect of returning to work without seeing 50% or more of your take-home salary spent on putting multiple children into daycare can be very attractive. For those in demanding roles or for whom travel is an important part of the job, grandparents are often able to provide vital support for you to pursue a career that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
It’s hard to condense the benefits of living near grandparents into a short list, but I think my headlines would be that:
- proximity means that your children see their grandparents more often, which tends to result in familiarity and ease that is hard to achieve otherwise;
- grandparents (and immediately family) are fantastic babysitters, and seem to know when you could do with a break;
- the childcare aspect of living near grandparents can be essential;
- grandparents can provide a home away from home, which (when it’s close) means that you can escape normal life and find a bit of sanctuary whenever you need it; and
- grandparents seem to get an unparalleled buzz out of seeing their grandchildren grow up.
Are there Disadvantages to Living Near Grandparents?
In the early years of raising children, it’s difficult to find too many downsides in having wonderful, readily available people to help with every aspect of your parenting. In our experience, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
However, that’s not to say that it will be a perfect arrangement, nor that living near grandparents will be an easy thing for every family.
Some of the possible disadvantages to living near grandparents include:
- failing to make the most of opportunities to create memories and prioritise family time, and defaulting towards survival mode (more on that below);
- turning down social opportunities because you’ve already committed to seeing family, and/or failing to pursue new relationships because you’re happy in your comfort zone;
- families where there are not clear boundaries, where grandparents are under or over-involved, where there are unresolved tensions in the family or where there is disagreement about the role that the parents expect the grandparents to play; or
- grandparents choosing not to pursue other interests or opportunities because they want to be available when their children/grandchildren need them.
Long Distance Grandparents: Making it Work
My children have three sets of grandparents; one living in our city, and two living a 2-3 hour drive away. By necessity this means that they see their ‘local’ grandparents between once a week and once a fortnight, and their ‘long distance’ grandparents every couple of months.
As we have observed this, and sought to ensure that our children and wider family get to spend lots of quality time together, it has been interesting to contrast the long-distance grandparent model (with which we are well acquainted) with the relatively new experience for us of having grandparents on the doorstep.
One immediate observation is that long-distance grandparents come (or we visit them) for the weekend. This means that we spend a full 48-72 hours together whenever we see them. It is amazing to see the way in which their relationships with their grandparents change over the course of a weekend – sometimes they are a little shy at the outset, but there is something very precious about the grandparents getting to experience every element of family life, from early-morning breakfast (albeit I think it’s fair to say that grandparents have earned the right to opt out of this one!) through to bath time and reading bedtime stories together. Like any long-distance relationship, the time spent together is all the sweeter for the absence that has preceded it.
We also make a big effort to have as much fun as we can when the grandparents come to stay – whether it’s beach trips, meals out or even sitting down to watch a film together. We want our children to cherish their time with their grandparents, and vice versa. That’s why we’re committed to going on holiday with at least one set of grandparents every year.
Like any long-distance relationship, there is also a lot to be said for the importance of maintaining good ongoing communication in between visits. Technology undoubtedly makes this easier. One of our favourite after-dinner activities with the children is video calling family. We also work hard to make sure that we’re sharing lots of photos and anecdotes so that the impact of distance is minimised. My mum often comments how much she feels like she knows our children when she sees them – even after a gap of a few months.
The Surprising Benefits for Grandparents of Living Near Grandchildren
When I first started giving some thought to this question, most of the arguments in my mind were anecdotal. It was only when I started doing a bit more research that I started to understand the wealth of benefits that stem from grandparents living near grandchildren.
Clearly every family is different, but some of the benefits for grandparents who live near grandchildren (and indeed the grandchildren) include:
- increased cognitive function for grandmothers who regularly spend time with their grandchildren
- reducing the risk of Alzheimers (although spending 5 days a week or more with the grandchildren actually increases the risk, which says a lot for the important of finding a happy medium!)
- increased life expectancy (if you don’t overdo it)
- improvements in children’s wellbeing generally, including lower rates of behavioural and emotional problems
- reduced adjustment difficulties for children in fragmented families, for example where the parents have divorced
- different benefits for children in spending time with their grandmothers (which studies have linked to child wellbeing) and their grandfathers (which tend to centre more around mentoring and an encouragement to pursue activities)
Grandparents: Should You Move to Live Near the Grandchildren?
For many grandparents, moving to live near the grandchildren is a no-brainer, particularly if they are retired and have the capital to make it happen. However, there are various factors to consider – some of which might involve difficult conversations with your children.
The first and most obvious question is whether your children actually want you to move to their patch. For some, the long-distance dynamic is a very positive one that works well, and isn’t something that they’d want to change. Others might want the flexibility to move again with work or for lifestyle reasons, and would feel guilty if their parents had upped sticks and relocated only for their grandchildren to be taken away again! There is also the important consideration of what will happen as you get older – will your children want to be responsible for caring for you, and indeed will you want them to care for you?
The only way to clarify this issue is to talk to your children. I was very grateful for the way that my wife’s parents approached this. They spoke to us and asked if we were amenable to them moving down, and whether we thought that they would cramp our style. We really respected the way that they had considered our views and didn’t want to impose themselves. Naturally, we were delighted when they decided to make the move.
Another issue to consider is whether you want to permanently relocate, or find a more temporary solution.
There are various ways to approach this. One sensible idea would be to rent out your family home and rent a property near your children and grandchildren. This will minimise the capital commitment of relocating, and kept the move relatively light touch. If for any reason you decide to move back to your primary home, it will be easy and inexpensive to do so. This also gives you an opportunity to test-drive the area, which will be particularly important if it’s not a place you know well or (for example) you’re moving from a rural or suburban environment into the city (or vice versa). If you then choose to relocate permanently then you will have done your due diligence and will know what kind of property and location you want.
An alternative would be to find short-term or holiday accommodation near your grandchildren, perhaps for 4 or 6 weeks a year. This would again be a good way to figure out what a relocation would actually be like. This sort of arrangement might also be more attractive if your children are unsure about whether they want you to move to their location.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider, though, is whether the move is right for you. To do this you almost need to take the grandchildren out of the equation. Would you like living in that place? Would there be opportunities for you to make friends and pursue your hobbies and interests? Do you have the energy to care for very young children several days a week, or is this an unrealistic ambition? Would the wrench of leaving your family home, and all the long-term friendships and relationships you have, be something that you are prepared to go through?
Ultimately only you (and your family) can answer these questions.
Holidays with Grandparents: a Win/Win!
One important consideration that I have alluded to above is that we have tried to prioritise holidays with the grandparents. These have varied from long weekends to weeks spent abroad, but have all been wonderful and precious experiences for everybody.
In our experience, holidays with the grandchildren have been a really valuable experience for our parents, particularly when they are long-distance.
Even if you can’t live near grandparents, prioritising them when thinking about holidays is a really important way to ensure that the whole family benefit. A little goes a long way – and the memories that you will make during that short time together will be very precious throughout the year.
Conclusion: Should We Live Near Grandparents?
Every family is different, and the decision as to whether you live near grandparents is an important one to get right. Clearly there are many benefits to this kind of arrangements, but it is not guaranteed to work.
Whether you already live near grandparents or it’s something that you (or they) are considering, hopefully this article will have given you some food for thought and be a helpful starting point for some of the key conversations that you need to have.