Family ties

Experts say that grandparents are the glue that hold families together


Storytellers. Family historians. Givers of great hugs. As Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Family Institute says, “Grandparents provide depth and richness to family relationships. They really can connect the past and the future, and those ‘I remember when’ moments can be very grounding.”

For many grandkids, grandparents provide the links to the family heritage, culture, and faith. Through grandparents, they learn about the values that the family holds dear. “That grandparent/grandchild relationship can be very significant,” says Spinks, “and can sometimes be even more significant than the parent/child relationship.”

Nora Spinks

How many grandkids, or even a parent for that matter, learned how to knit or make bread from a grandparent? Or learned an old-fashioned card game? The flip side happens when grandkids teach grandparents about technology.

“Kids get it,” says Spinks. “They understand the importance of that grandparent relationship. I know of some kids in this time of COVID who adopted a grandfather because he couldn’t see his own grandkids. They recognized the value of that relationship.” In Indigenous cultures, elders are esteemed. If you don’t have a biological grandparent(s), elders will fill that role. Grandparents provide security and stability. Spinks cites a program in Winnipeg that pairs seniors with kids who don’t have a grandparent. And in many cultures, it’s an honour and duty for kids take care of their grandparents.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many of those precious grandchild and grandparent relationships. But with Zoom or Facetime, those relationships can be maintained. “This virus has made it more difficult for sure,” says Spinks, “but at least the technology exists for kids to stay in touch with their grandparents because like any relationship, it has to be nurtured and there has to be investment from both sides.” And Spinks says that shifting the language to ‘physical’ distancing, instead of ‘social’ distancing, is more positive. “Whether it’s an hour, or five minutes, it’s so important to keep up that relationship,” says Spinks. “Kids will reap the richness from that generation. And what could be better than a relationship between grandchildren, grandparents and even great-grandparents? To me, that is a win-win-win.”  

Don Avery understands the importance of grandparents. He created the non-profit organization Building GRAND-Families Inc., in Prince Edward Island. “Last August, we did a survey on the island with the assistance of the Vanier Institute,” says Avery. “We found well over 200 grandparents or great-grandparents (who) are raising their grandkids. The idea was to create a support system for them and raise awareness.” Five years ago, Avery and his wife Catherine took over the care of their great-granddaughter, so they understand the challenges that others in this situation are facing.  “We knew that taking care of our great-granddaughter would be a large responsibility,” says Avery, “and there would be financial, physical and emotional issues, but we didn’t hesitate for a moment.” Their great-granddaughter is now living with her father. Avery says he was surprised when they found so many grandparents and great-grandparents taking care of kids. “There is little to no support for these grand-families,” he says. “The Alternative Care Provider Program is vague and there is no policy in place for getting assistance.”

Don Avery

Avery has met with the Prince Edward Island child and youth advocate officer who was appointed in May of 2020, and he has received positive feedback from the survey the Vanier Institute did. “Interestingly, the survey revealed that more than half of the grand-families were taking care of grandkids due to either mental health issues or addiction problems,” says Avery. “That’s a substantial reason why these grand-families need access to resources and support services.” According to Statistics Canada, the number of grandparents is increasing faster than the general population. Grandparents continue to play a role in families either financially or by providing childcare. And as life expectancy increases, it’s likely that grandparents and great-grandparents will play an ever more increasing role in raising their grandkids and great-grandkids, sometimes as the primary caregiver. This, however, is an area that is currently lacking in both Canadian research and policies.

Dr. Christina Murray from the University of Prince Edward Island, Avery, and the Vanier Institute have recently embarked on a two-year project aimed at increasing understanding about grand-families on Prince Edward Island.  This project is focused on increasing awareness about the issues and opportunities facing grand-families through research, and community mobilizations. Their findings will be shared with a broad array of decisionmakers in hopes of influencing policy and practice that respond to the needs of grand-families and those who study, serve, and support them.

In 2019, the Vanier Institute held their national conference on Families in Canada. The University of Prince Edward Island hosted a satellite Families in Canada conference and was the only site in Canada that offered a post-conference event focusing specifically on grandparents raising grandkids, says Avery. While this project is currently focused on the needs of grandparents raising grandchildren on PEI, the project team see this as only the beginning. They have plans to grow the project across Canada.

“I’d like to see GRAND-Families go national,” says Avery. “I want people to realize how important grandparents and great-grandparents are – not just for families but how they contribute to the community at large, and how often they are the glue that holds everything together.”

“Grandparents are parents too,” says Samantha Kutowy of The Ontario Parenting Connection, “and they still have a vital role to play for both their own adult children and their grandkids.” Kutowy says that parent millennials are swamped these days with work and childcare responsibilities and grandparents can provide a safety net.

Samantha Kutowy

“We started The Ontario Parenting Connection as a grassroots organization for mostly rural families, then we realized that many of the issues we were talking about affect all families.” Kutowy says one area where grandparents could provide much needed support is through volunteering at schools. “I know that would be difficult to do right now because of COVID-19, but once things are back to normal, grandparents have such a wealth of information and untapped expertise that could be beneficial to school boards.” She says that right now, all school board meetings are online and often busy parents just don’t have the time to participate. “A grandparent could sit in and relay information back to the parents,” says Kutowy. “Or they could get involved in advocacy issues that will benefit not just their grandkids, but other kids as well.” Kutowy says that she understands how many grandparents feel that there isn’t a place for them, especially involvement in their grandkids’ education – but there is. And she echoes Spinks and Avery. “If nothing else,” she says, “this pandemic has shown us how, for so many reasons, that grandparents really are the glue holding families together.”  



Keep grandparents safe in your home

Every year, falls on stairs and in bathrooms are a major cause of injuries among all age groups. Falls cost our health care system nearly three billion dollars annually. Simple changes in your home can help to keep everyone safe, says Nancy Edwards, a fall prevention expert and chair of C.A.R.P. Ottawa’s Fall Prevention Committee. Here are her tips:

  • Install a graspable handrail – one that is easy to wrap your hand around.
  • Ensure handrails are continuous for the entire length of the staircase.
  • There should a minimum of one handrail for stairs, regardless of the number of steps.
  • Ensure your stairways are well lit by providing light switches at each floor.


Fast Facts

  • The number of grandparents aged 85 and older has almost tripled since 1995.
  • Grandmothers outnumber grandfathers.
  • The average age of grandparents is increasing.
  • Today’s grandparents have fewer grandchildren.
  • Foreign-born grandparents are twice as likely to live with their grandchildren.

Source: Family Matters: Grandparents in Canada


About C.A.R.P.

C.A.R.P. promotes and protects the interests, rights, and quality of life of Canadians as we age.

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Useful websites

Vanier Institute for the Family

Building GRAND-Families Inc.

The Ontario Parenting Connection