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August 26, 2022

Spending time with grandchildren can help older adults find a sense of purpose

Close relationships help grandparents lead meaningful, active lives – and they provide a range of other health benefits, too

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Grandparents Health Benefits Courtesy/Louis Bezich

Louis Bezich, right, sits with his grandson, Luca, during a trip to the Jersey Shore. Close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren help older adults stay active and mobile, research shows. The children are less prone to behavioral problems.

Mother Nature provides us with a number of tools that can boost our health and well-being. It's an amazing dimension of humanity, and like many of these resources, they're social in nature and often right in front of us.  

Such is the case with my nearly 7-year-old grandson Luca. He's the love of my life, a real ball of energy and a huge source of inspiration to live healthy. Summers give my wife Maria and me an extra dose of Luca when his parents spend time with us at the Jersey Shore. The other day, Luca and I spent some quality time together enjoying one of the most classic grandfather-grandson activities, miniature golf.  

The experience, and more importantly, how I felt about our little jaunt, got me wondering if there was something more to our time together. Turns out there is a larger story, one that all grandfathers – and the parents of their grandsons – should know. 

But first, a little bit about our golf outing. It starts with our walk to the course, which is probably a good 15 minutes down the Promenade and along Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City. Of course, during the trek, we peaked into some shops where Luca eyeballed toys and other interesting items that might be worth checking-out after golf. Luca's no fool. He was already positioning me for his move on the way back home. I knew I was being played, and I loved it. 

Once at the course, it was about trying to maintain some semblance of a game when Luca was more fixated on the water that flows throughout the course, where the balls pop out from the underground tunnels, and the pirate-themed characters spread among the holes. His approach was more hockey-like as he guided the ball to the hole. Thank goodness we were there on a Saturday morning (I couldn't believe they opened at 9 a.m.) and basically had the course to ourselves. Still, we made our way through the 18 holes and the scary pirate characters.  

Luca treated the course more like a playground, running up-and-down the greens, and even trying to block my shots – this is the goalie part of the hockey reference. All of this was a build-up to the final hole and a chance at a free game – which he tried without success with both our balls. Despite a less-than-PGA performance, our little tournament proved to be a lot of fun and filled with laughs. However, most important was the bond that the experience generated. A bond that was evident in Luca's eyes. And yes, we did stop on the way home to pick up a small toy.  

So, is there something more to my morning round of miniature golf with Luca? Let's see what the experts say. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic, close relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren produce a win-win result. Grandparents are kept young by staying active and mobile, with more meaning and less depression in their lives. And researchers have observed less emotional and behavioral problems in the grandchildren.  

The American Heart Association suggests that spending time with grandkids can boost your lifespan, but they advise that the quality of the time is equal to the quantity. The organization cites research indicating longer lives and improved cognitive functioning in grandparents that watched their grandchildren one day a week. However, AHA also points to research that shows more extensive time with grandchildren can produce the opposite results like depression, fatigue and chronic pain. The science documents what every grandparent knows – the grandkids are fantastic – in moderation. 

In an Atlas Award-winning study, researchers also concluded that grandparents live longer when they spend time caring for their grandchildren. The results are part of a growing recognition that pro-social behavior has a positive impact on health. 

And, Wyoming-based Mantra Care details the benefits to grandparents with regular access to their grandchildren. Among their list is building a sense of purpose, more socialization with other adults, greater physical activity and cognitive stimulation. 

Ways to connect 

Luca lives five minutes from us. We're lucky. But whether you're 5 minutes or 5 hours from your grandchildren, there are many ways to stay connected and several activities that can keep you engaged. Pulling lessons from the pandemic, the Harvard Medical School advises that age and interests offer a starting point for online meet ups. This might include reading books or playing games. Involving siblings or cousins is a way to extend the benefits of your time and promote socialization. If technology is a constraint, an old-fashioned phone call still works.  

Now that we're in a less restrictive COVID environment, my own experience includes activities like a nice walk in the park, beach time or watching a favorite Disney production. 

Feeling young 

As baby boomers, we have a built-in desire to stay young forever. One way to maintain the feeling, if not the reality of our youth, is to hang out with young people. In February, I wrote about the benefits of intergenerational relationships and how the science shows that time spent with young people produces a positive impact on our health. Seems as though this science also holds true when it comes to grandchildren.  

So, whether you have grandchildren, recognize the health benefits of time spent with younger people. I want to be around to see Luca graduate from college, maybe get married or just watch him grow into a young man. Along the way, I want to have a trusted and supportive relationship with him that adds meaning to both of our lives. If this improves my health and well-being, then all the better! 

As a day-to-day strategy, creativity – tailoring your interactions to the age and circumstances of the young people you engage – seems to be the common denominator. If my experience is any indication, your efforts can produce rewards and fulfillment like no other – and benefit your health as well. It's a winning combination.  

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

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