Joan Bakewell: Celebrate the bonds between old and young

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The Independent Online

Saturday is grandparents' day. There are now some 14.5 million of us and the day's celebration will mean different things for different people. All too often it will bring a wistful regret at contacts lost or relationships strained. But for many, being a grandparent is a major part of their identity and their lives.

From middle age onwards many of us are given a second go at family bonds and new relationships, and it can be up to you what you make of it. It is also up to a lot of other things, too. The ways of being a grandparent in today's world are many and various. But the word itself and the role is a benign one. It is worth celebrating.

There was a time when the only profile grannies had was as the victim of Red Riding Hood's wolf, or the winner of Butlins glamorous granny competition. In the fable, Red Riding Hood walks alone through the woods to bring a basket of goodies to the old dear lying in bed. At Butlins the competing grannies were anything from their mid-thirties, having had their children early, and their children likewise. Today myth and reality are no longer appropriate. It is the grandparents who do the caring, even as they also hold down jobs.

Grandparents are a vast, flexible and willing resource. Their achievements are currently celebrated in the BBC 2 series: Grandad or Grandma's Back in Business – people over 50 pitching against younger talents for the type of job they used to do. So far the older has won out against the younger for a comedy job, lost to the younger as both chef and hairdresser. We must wait until Monday to see who triumphs in fashion. But the truth is that where today's grandparents really score against the young is in childcare.

Age Concern, which is launching its own Grandparent of the Year Award, has been doing the sums. They've found that some 60 per cent of childcare in this country is provided by grandparents. If that care was provided by paid childminders it would cost the country around £3.9bn a year. One in 100 children lives with a grandparent, and in a typical working week 30 per cent of working families receive help from grandparents. "Evolved, modern grandparents are," they claim, "the oil that greases the wheels of family life."

Take Jean Boyd, who was Grandparent of the Year three years ago. Her granddaughter Melissa had a trampoline accident at the age of 13, and was paralysed from the neck down. Jean joined the family effort to help her recovery, driving to France once a month to get her granddaughter special treatment. Melissa, now 19, has recently got her A-levels and is studying to be an accountant. Jean's bonds with her granddaughter are strong: "A friend said 'I always wondered why you went on and on about having a grandchild , until I had one of my own. Now I understand exactly what you mean.' I think many people are surprised by what a difference it makes." Jean herself is still working, 9am to 4pm, as wages clerk at a school for children with learning difficulties. A full life at the age of 59.

But all is not rosy and snug in the grandparents' world. The reality is that many things make sustained contact difficult and many young people are missing out. Geographical distance is one: a family of working parents will need to live where both their career paths can be followed. It probably won't be next door to Mum and Dad. Working patterns, moving from job to job, all make it hard to stay close to both sets of grandparents.

Modern communications come to the rescue. Help the Aged is using Grandparents' day to issue a call to action, urging grandchildren to reach for the telephone. They've done their sums too. Their survey shows that 2.5 million grandparents go for more than a month without seeing their grandchildren, but 71 per cent of them speak on the telephone at least once a month and 65 per cent phone at least once a week. I wonder how many are in touch by internet, because, despite popular assumptions, many over-50s are dedicated emailers.

Things get harder when it comes to divorce. The rise in the number of separations and re-marriages has muddied once clear links. It is agonising for grandparents when their grandchildren disappear into new families, or are taken out of reach by resentful and hurt ex-spouses. Grandparents can make a legal claim for access, but they may have to plead their case before the courts, and all the tender closeness that comes with happy families can be dissipated in the cold calculating light of access visits and agreed handovers. Being at one remove from the main fracas leaves grandparents with nothing but tearful regret and a yearning for what was once so rewarding.

But there may be compensations. They may find they acquire step-grandchildren: some 20 per cent of grandparents under 60 are also step-grandparents. They arrive into the lives of young people as total strangers and have to create new bonds from scratch. It can't be easy. Single-parent families are further disadvantaged, of course, only having one set of grandparents from the start. And I imagine the children of civil partnerships are as rewarded as the rest and equally vulnerable to separation. In the great hurly-burly that is our evolving social arrangements there is one eternal and steadfast truth: that the bonds between the very old and the very young, are uniquely rewarding. We should indeed be celebrating them.