Grandparenthood: its meaning and contribution to older people's lives

Project lead: Ms Lynda Clarke

Research team

  • Ms Lynda Clarke

  • Ms Ceridwen Roberts

  • Mr Francis McGlone

  • Ms Helen Prophet


September 1999 - April 2002


Ms Lynda Clarke
Centre for Population Studies
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
49-51 Bedford Square
London WC1B 3DP

Tel: +44 (0)207 299 4636


Population ageing and the recent changes in family life in most developed countries are creating new challenges and opportunities for older people. People are living for longer and families have become more unstable and changed in nature – most notably with both parents working. This has resulted in changing intergenerational family relationships.

For older people, the relationship with grandchildren is an important adjunct to their relationships with spouses and their children. Indeed relationships with grandchildren may become increasingly important for grandparents as they get older. Their spouse may die or disappear and relationships with children and grandchildren may be renegotiated as the balance or type of dependency changes. Conversely, grandparents may be expected to care for grandchildren or to contribute to their support in financial or emotional terms. As attitudes change towards older people’s independence and autonomy this may, however, be at odds with their own desires to continue in paid employment or pursue other leisure interests.

Today more older people are experiencing grandparenthood than ever before and yet this role, one of the main family roles for older people, has been largely ignored by social researchers and family policy specialists in Britain. This project will provide information on the range of grandparenting styles and experiences in Britain and the extent to which grandparents choose, or are constrained by, their role as grandparents as well as what shapes this choice. It will also provide information on the value that older people place on being a grandparent, the satisfaction that they gain from being a grandparent and the centrality of this family role in older people’s identity.

Aims and objectives

The aim of this project is to explore the role of grandparenthood in the lives of older people. It will identify the extent and diversity of grandparenting in Britain and investigate the experience and meaning of grandparenthood for older people who have become grandparents.

The objectives are:

  • To collect novel nationally representative data on the extent and nature of grandparent/grandchild contact in Britain and the diversity of grandparental involvement

  • To investigate what meaning and value is attached to being a grandparent by older people and how this varies by their family circumstances and personal characteristics.

  • To explore the extent to which current grandparenting roles, and levels and types of activity are chosen by, or constrained for older people and how this is related to their level of satisfaction with their experience of grandparenthood.

  • To establish the extent and nature of grandparents’ financial, practical and emotional support for their children’s families, the reasons for the variations in support and the reciprocal nature of this inter-generational exchange.

  • To explore the significance of older people’s role as grandparents makes, both to their identity as older people and to the emotional, social and financial quality of their lives.

Study design

The research will involve two stages. Firstly, a nationally representative sample of grandparents of all ages will be carried out using the ONS Omnibus Kinship Module. Approximately 1,000 grandparents will be interviewed by ONS, most by telephone. Those without 'phones will be interviewed face-to-face. This will provide an estimate of the extent of grandparent/grandchild contact in Britain. It will also provide an indication of grandparents’ attitudes towards their role and how these vary by family circumstances and personal characteristics. For the second stage of the research, a sub-sample of 60 grandparents will be drawn from this national sample for further in-depth interview. These interviews will explore the meanings and value attached to grandparenting and the extent to which being a grandparent contributes to the quality of life of older people.

Policy implications

Without accurate data there has been a tendency to ignore the diversity of grandparents’ roles and obligations in social policy. The current Government has acknowledged the importance of grandparents for family life, for example, as indicated in the Government’s recent consultation paper on the family. Little is known, however, about the extent of grandparental contact and involvement with grandchildren nor the extent to which this role adds to the quality of life of older people. The results of the research will allow an estimation of the possible effects and acceptability of demographic, family and policy change on grandparenting roles.

Policy-relevant information on grandparental desires about rights of contact with, and support of, grandchildren will be emphasised and the research will also allow the identification of certain vulnerable groups of older people, such as, those experiencing problems in negotiating satisfactorily grandchild contact or encountering unreasonable obligations from their children in this respect. The research will increase recognition, by both policy makers and service providers, of the diversity of behaviours and views that older people exhibit as grandparents and in doing so will highlight the interests of grandparents as well as those of parents and grandchildren.