As a kid, I slept over at my grandparents’ house on the occasional weekend, which was always a treat. Getting secret sips of coffee and watching the sitcom “Golden Girls,” about four older women who share a house in Miami, with my Nana was fun.
I’d also lie on my uncle’s old twin bed as my grandfather sat next to me telling stories (OK, maybe some were exaggerated) about his time in World War II, which seemed so remote and fascinating to a sheltered kid from suburban Boston. The people he met in Burma, China, and India are as vivid to me now as they were back in 1986.
Turns out those shared moments and stories were beneficial for both myself and my grandparents. Informal or structured, intergenerational relationships add context, perspective, and texture to our lives—and research shows they have health benefits, too. Here are a few.
Happiness across the lifespan.
George Vaillant, M.D., led Harvard University’s landmark adult development study on aging and intergenerational relationships for several decades. The research began with 724 men in 1938 and continues today with an expanded demographic profile. A major theme: Vaillant found that older adults who invest in, care for, and develop the next generation through the years are three times as likely to be happy as those who did not. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation,” said Robert Waldinger, M.D., the study’s current director.
Healthy cognition and brain function in older adults.
Now that I’m an adult, I listen to my dad as he shares his volunteer experiences at Sages and Seekers, a national program that pairs senior citizens with high school students who have similar interests. He chats with his “seeker” about his legal career, life in the 1970s (which is definitely a mystery to me), and lessons he’s learned along the way. At the end, the seeker writes an essay about their friendship, which my dad proudly shares with me every semester. Not only does my dad clearly enjoy these encounters, but I look forward to hearing about them too. Better yet, research shows that this kind of sustained cognitive activity sharpens his executive functioning and memory.
Improved well-being for kids.
Meanwhile, my husband and I gifted each of our parents a Storyworth subscription last year. Every week, Storyworth sends an email prompt that we designed to our parents (“What was your favorite meal of all-time? What was childhood like in the 1950s?”). Then we’re treated to a short-story reply, which we’ll ultimately compile in a hardcover album with photos after a year. We read it to our kids every time it arrives, and they follow up with a phone chat with their grandparents to discuss the answers. Fun for grandparents, but it has real benefits for our kids: New research from Oxford University shows that kids with a high level of grandparent involvement have fewer emotional and behavioral problems—yes, despite the recent revelation that my dad wore a neon-pink tuxedo on his honeymoon.