Family Ministry Today

The Center for Christian Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

A New Way of Life for the Old

by Josh Mulvihill – Nov 4

Historically, grandparents have held a meaningful and important place in the family. However, changes to American society around the mid-1800’s began to alter family structures and grandparental functions. A primary concern for Christian educators is that Christian grandparents have accepted societal changes to the role of grandparent as normative rather than adopt a biblical perspective of passing the gospel from one generation to the next. Historians of the elderly believe “we cannot readily evaluate even more modern history of the subject without some sense of what the elderly are moving from” (1). What place did the elderly have in American society in past centuries? How did Americans view the elderly prior to the twenty-first century? What roles did grandparents have in the family? These questions will be explored in order to piece together a state of grandparenting in America prior to the twenty-first century.

Studies on the elderly in America show a steady deterioration of respect and responsibility from a once solid base. Some gerontologists hold to a nostalgic “golden age of age” in the preindustrial past and use this time period as a framework to determine how present day generations should interact (2). Peter Stearns, a historian, believes that preindustrial society should not be the basis for an evaluation of the elderly (3). Christians agree and look to the Bible for instruction regarding the role and responsibility of grandparents.

According to Scripture, grandparents have a vital role in the transfer of faith from one generation to another (Ps 71:17-18; 2 Tim 1:5; Deut 4:9; Gen 31:55). The grandparent’s primary responsibility is to teach the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord (Ps 78:1-8). A grandparent is to love the Lord and train children and grandchildren to fear God (Deut 6:1-2). The Bible speaks of grandparents transmitting godly values, beliefs, and traditions to future generations. Younger Christians can learn to number their days as they watch grandparents live for Christ in a sinful world (Ps 90:12). Just as the older generation has a responsibility to spiritually nurture younger generations, the younger generation has the responsibility to honor and care for the older generation (1 Tim 5:1-2, 8; Lev 19:32; Exod 20:12).

In preindustrial societies the perception and treatment of the elderly was not a utopian experience for those of old age. One French theologian from the fifteenth century remarked that eighty year olds are “fit for nothing” (4) and a frequently reprinted seventeenth-century text describes old age as the “worst time of life” (5). Francis Bacon provided a good description of the physical changes that accompany old age such as dry skin, hard flesh, poor digestion, dry bowels, weak muscles, gray hair, and physical discomfort (6).

Despite mindsets such as these, the elderly were given a level of respect and asked to serve an important function that is not common in America today. Historians suggest that a great change has occurred for elderly people in America as they once assumed positions of authority, both in the home and in society, but are now pushed to the fringes and expected to be a companion or playmate to their grandchild.

A quick scan of book titles available for purchase on the subject of grandparenting reveals much about the role grandparents have today. A few titles include Totally Cool Grandparenting, Creative Grandparenting, 101 Ways to Spoil Your Grandchild, Long-Distance Grandparenting: Connecting With Your Grandchild from Afar:, and The Modern Grandparent’s Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to the New Rules of Grandparenting. These are only a small sample, but reveal much about grandparenting today. The titles reveal the aims, priorities, and “new rules” for this generation of grandparents: being cool, creative, and spoiling grandchildren from afar. How did we arrive at “cool, creative, and connecting” grandparenting? Brian Gratton and Carole Haber suggest there have been three distinct phases that mark the history of American Grandparents: authority figures, burdens, and companions (7).

Historians argue the elderly received greater respect and had a more important role in preindustrial America for two key reasons: scarcity value and educational role. Elderly people formed a small percentage of the total population of any preindustrial society. Shorter life spans made old age more rare than it is today, and this scarcity compared to contemporary levels increased their value to society. What was considered old age? For men, sixty was seen as the beginning of old age while women were often viewed as elderly upon menopause (8).

The educational role of the elderly helped to create a favorable attitude toward, and treatment of, grandparents. Preindustrial societies were largely illiterate and learning depended on word of mouth. The elderly served as society’s mentors with an important role of information control (9). In addition, experience was a valuable attribute for most endeavors and one commodity that elders possessed in greater abundance than youthful contemporaries (10). In preindustrial agricultural America the elderly were given an honored place in society (11). Grandparents were respected for their wisdom and revered for their old age.

Historically, grandparents functioned in a role of authority as the head of a family unit and did so until the early 1900’s. Two eighteenth century portraits, “The Grandfather’s Advice” and “The Grandmother’s Present” depict the ideal relationship between grandparent and grandchild: an adoring grandchild sitting on a grandparents knee listening attentively to wisdom and experience (12).

The picture of grandparents as the center of the home began to slowly change as the elderly began to lose authority in the family. With the advance of time the number of elderly people increased and their value as educators decreased. “With modern literacy, learning is stored in books—not old minds—and so the elderly automatically lose status and function” (13). With the advance of medicine, life spans began to increase. Living to old age, which was once rare, was becoming more common.

The government began to influence family life, primarily through the court system, by enabling women and children the right to challenge patriarchal authority over property rights, life estates, and transmission of wealth (14). The decline of patriarchal control and respect for the elderly occurred at the same time as what sociologists refer to as “domestic feminism,” an increase in the wife’s ability to control household affairs (15). One historian states that a changing domestic ideology resulted in increased opportunities for women, “reduced patriarchal control on the home and altered the structure of authority within the family” (16). By the early 1900’s the elderly were beginning to be viewed as a burden to be dealt with rather than a blessing to admire.

How American society viewed elderly parents morphed over a relatively short period of time. One document is particularly helpful as it provides a glimpse into a tectonic shift that occurred nearly a century ago. The article, “Age Old Intestate,” was written by an anonymous author in 1931 and describes the changing mindset adult children had toward their elderly parents.

Throughout history, as parents aged, they went to live in a child’s home. The anonymous author suggests this tradition wasn’t simply an American creation but “an ancient custom of taking the old into the homes of the young” (17). The author’s experience suggests tri-generational living was the norm, “When I was a child I took it for granted that a grandmother or grandfather should live in the house of nearly every one of my playmates” (18) In previous generations the only means of care for the elderly was to go into the homes of their children, “It has always been taken for granted that when men or women grow old and become lonely or helpless or sick, they should, of course, go to live with sons and daughters…This assumption implies, moreover, that it is necessarily the duty of the young to make home life possible for the old” (19).

By the 1930’s, this mindset was beginning to change and the elderly were viewed as a burden to separate from rather than a blessing to incorporate into the family. According to the author, life was great when her parents were independent and isolated from her family, but that changed once her mother moved in. The author states,

Before then my household of four lived in harmony. My husband and I had found our home restful. We had enjoyed a bit of leisure…there was nothing present that menaced the foundations of our happiness or the children’s welfare…Now harmony is gone. Rest has vanished. My husband and I have no longer any time together unless we leave the house. We have no leisure. We have no time for children…We have had to shut our door to hospitality (20).

Elderly parents are portrayed as disruptions to life and the cause of dysfunction in the family. According to the author, the best alternative is to remove the oldest generation from the family picture altogether. The implied ideal for all of society, she believes, is captured in the words of her mother in reference to an old people’s home.

It is the place for old people. I should be taken care of; I should have no responsibility and no worry; I should be with people whose business it is to take care of old ladies, so that I should feel myself a burden to no one. And I do not want to tie down my children as I have seen other mothers tie down theirs (21).

The emerging view held that at a retirement home, the older generation will not be an intrusion to the family but will find satisfaction in being with individuals of the same age and stage of life.

The author believes three actions are necessary to ensure the independence of one generation from another: protection, prevention, and avoidance. First, families must be protected from the burden of the elderly through some form of financial provision for the old while educating society about the dangers of integrating the generations. Second, families need to learn to prevent the elderly from interfering; therefore, infringing on all family members happiness. And third, families need to avoid entanglements with the older generation as they will likely disrupt each others lives (22). According to this author, these goals require a social contract in order to enforce this new way of life for the old. The author states,

As soon as we can find a few free hours together we are going to draw up a document. The purpose of it will be to make it clear to our children, and to all friends and relatives who are inclined to give advice or make objections, that we desire to live our lives physically and personally independent of our children (23).

Is there any better way to summarize grandparenting in the twenty-first century than with the phrase, “we desire to live our lives physically and personally independent of our children?” Is it any coincidence that Social Security and age-segregated living for the elderly sprung up all over the country at about the same time in American history as the mindset represented in this anonymous article? In a relatively short period of time society moved from veneration to scorn for the elderly:

By the early twentieth century, their status had precipitously declined, especially in the middle class. Physicians viewed old age as an illness, critics denigrated the capacities of older workers, and family experts opposed extended and complex households. Demographic pressures made grandparents a burden and a threat rather than a valued resource (24).

The past century has seen the place and priority of grandparents in the American family radically altered. A number of factors led to a new way of life for the old: the industrial revolution, longer life, and economic factors such as mass education, affluence, inheritance patterns, and Social Security.

The Industrial Revolution

The consensus viewpoint held by social theorists is that the industrial revolution was the primary cause for many of the changes in family function and structure in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One sociologist summarizes this sentiment well,

Once upon a time, in traditional societies, people lived in extended families; now they live in nuclear families. In between came the industrial revolution. Old people enjoyed security, status, and power in traditional societies in part because their age made them dominant within their families. Industrialization involved proletarianization, urbanization, greater geographic and social mobility, and the rise of individualism. These developments destroyed the extended family and the advantaged position of the elderly (25)

Industrialization and new technology reduced the authority achieved from agricultural experience. “New technology often made the talents of the old appear obsolete and the new economy offered an attractive alternative to young men and women who, in the past, might have chosen to stay on as dutiful workers in the family enterprise” (26). The culture of the industrial era indicated that the agricultural skills of the elderly were outdated and no longer essential to society (27). Historian Peter Stearn summarizes this viewpoint well,

The industrial revolution did have an impact. Most important was the fact that the old became relatively less significant economically, declining as a percentage of the work force, unable to offer the most up-to-date skills…Everywhere the elderly swelled the ranks of unskilled labor; everywhere they were disproportionately unemployed or degraded in pay and skill levels (28)

Longer Life and Tri-generational Homes

A larger portion of the population not only survived to old age, but also experienced a dramatic increase in lifespan. In 1900, only four percent of the total population of America was over the age of sixty-five years old (29). The percentage of those over the age of sixty-five gradually increased until reaching the all-time high of thirteen percent of the American population in 2010 (30). As life expectancy began to lengthen this had an impact on the economy; the elderly became a challenge for the younger population as they were forced to compete with one another for resources and jobs (31).

As the mortality rate began to decline, there was a greater probability that three generations of family members would be alive simultaneously (32). However, this did not translate into an increase in the number of homes with three generations living together. By 1900, tri-generational households had reached its peak in American history (33). The early 1900’s saw a rising sentiment against multigenerational living arrangements. For example, Samuel Butler wrote in 1885,

I believe that more unhappiness comes from this source than from any other—I mean from the attempt to prolong the family connection unduly and to make people hang together artificially who would never naturally do so…And the old people do not really like it so much better than the young (34).

The anonymous female writer from the 1930’s recalled her perceived problems with tri-generational living and believed that the homes in which grandparents lived, “should be full of friction; The association of grandparents with friction took such a hold in my mind that I called myself lucky because my own were dead” (35)! Family experts argued that grandparents in the home limited the happiness and prosperity of young and old alike. Although they never directly attacked the idea of family obligation, they counseled that such duties were best fulfilled through separate households.

The transition away from multigenerational dependence is “strongly rooted in the growing independence of adult children from their parents’ assets and resources” (36). The need for separate residences for grandparents became a cornerstone of the early twentieth century campaign for publically funded old age pensions (37). In 1928, Abraham Epstein, a pension advocate argued,

It seems a pity to force any father or mother in this twentieth century to decide between supporting old parents and contenting themselves with a little less food, less room, less clothing, and the curtailment of their children’s education, or sending their parents to the poorhouse (38).

There was an emerging view of the old as burdensome and nonproductive and this was directly impacted by the increase of life and the changing American economy.

Economic Factors

In order to understand the decline of the multigenerational home and the changing roles of grandparents, “we must understand the changing needs and resources of the younger generation as well as the older generation” (39).

The multigenerational family system of the pre-industrial era in America provided benefits for the older and younger generations. In an agricultural society, elderly farmers needed adult children to do heavy work when they were no longer capable of doing it. The younger generation eventually inherited the farm or business and with it a lifelong occupation (40). The industrial revolution slowly eroded these benefits and altered the need for multigenerational homes. Historian Steven Ruggles summarizes the impact of industrialism and the changing economy on family systems. He states,

This system was shattered between 1850 and 1950 by a fundamental transformation of the economy. Agriculture and self-employed crafts ceased to be the dominant occupations; they were eclipsed by the enormous growth of jobs in large-scale commerce, manufacturing and transportation. The new economy undermined the economic logic of the pre-industrial family. With the expansion of job opportunities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many young men left the farm in favor of high wages, independence, and excitement offered by town life (41).

The family farm slowly declined in importance as the economy transitioned from production in the home to production in the city and greater numbers of men were needed to run factories. Without the economic benefit of the family farm to look forward to, young people had few reasons to stay at home.

Mass Education

Mass education reinforced the changes occurring in families. Schooling began to undermine the traditional family economy. Children spent their days in school, rather than at home working, and this reduced their economic contributions to the household. Thus, “schooling helped to restructure family relationships by transforming children from an economic asset into an economic burden” (42). Education was one of the factors that began to alter the authority structure in the family.

Increasingly, obtaining a good job depended more on education than on family connections. Those who graduated from high school had dramatically improved economic opportunities and expanded horizons. By the mid-twentieth century, when secondary education was expanding rapidly, sons typically had more education and greater earning power than did their fathers, and this transformed the economic relationship between generations (43).

Education empowered the younger generation, not the older generation. Those with education were less likely to work on the farm while being more likely to move to the city to seek their fortune.

For the first time in history, economic incentives did not give the elderly power over the young nor was there a compelling reason for adult children to stay at home. Living arrangements were altered, co-residence began to decline, and the younger generation began to leave the family farm for the city. One historian believes, “the evidence suggests that the decline of the multigenerational family occurred mainly because of increasing opportunities for the young and declining parental control over their children” (44).

According to nineteenth century family historian Charles de Ribbe, authority bred respect, and respect guaranteed support in old age (45). Remove patriarchal authority through economic incentive and it eliminated the support young showed to the old. Money, as much or more than anything else, has altered the family landscape in America.

Inheritance Patterns and Affluence

Over the past two centuries a “significant evolution” of inheritance patterns changed the way land was handed down from one generation to the next (46). The bulk of household wealth in America, perhaps as much as 80 percent, was handed down from one generation to another (47). During the colonial period, in one Pennsylvania city, 87 percent of all landholders passed their farms or business to their heirs; in the 1790’s, the proportion fell to 71 percent. By 1890, only about a third gave their property to their children (48). “The elderly no longer used inheritance provisions to maintain authority over their heirs. Instead they sold property and created their own ‘nest egg’ for retirement” (49). Industrialization ushered in a new era shifting demographics, undermining an agricultural way of life, while providing alternative economic means other than the family farm.

In a prosperous economy, young and old were able to amass sufficient wealth to live independently (50). Gratton and Haber suggest, “Rising economic well-being brought the vision of permanently separate homes for all generations within reach” (51). Grandparents were encouraged to live on their own as “Experts advised that extended family arrangements symbolized impoverishment and failure. Only the poor, or those with foreign values—immigrants, for example—would live in this manner; all others would choose to reside independently” (52). The role of extended family no longer seemed necessary and its value for grandchildren had been seriously challenged. Gone was the economic need for multiple generations to live together and with it went the desire to live in a three-generational household. A new value had arisen for the elderly: independence and security. Social Security Social security, as well as private pensions, emerged as a means to meet the widespread desire for financial and residential independence of older Americans (53). The popularity of Social Security reveals America’s desire not to be burdened by the need to support the elderly. Social Security greatly reduced the need for multigenerational living as is noticeable in the pattern of elderly establishing separate residences. In 1900, over 60 percent of older adults lived with children; by 1962, that dropped to 25 percent, and by 1975 it dropped to only 14 percent (54). For the first time in history, the majority of Americans had the financial resources to live in their own home. The expansion of the government’s role in assuring the welfare of its citizens—through programs such as Social Security—played a vital part in transforming family relations (55). As a result of Social Security, new ideas have emerged about the obligations between generations. Aging parents are less financially dependent upon their children while children are relying less on parents to start a family and begin a home (56).

In 1935, the United States Congress initiated Social Security. Prior to this point, older people and their families were responsible for their own welfare. Numerous states even had laws requiring adult children to care for and support aged parents; although the enforcement of these laws was negligible. Historians Shammas, Salmon, and Dahlin note the impact Social Security on the elderly in the job market.

In 1900 nearly two-thirds of all men sixty-five and older were still in the work force. Many of those not working were involuntarily retired, forced out by ill health, physical incapacity, or the growing prejudice against older employees in the industrial labor force. Nor was retirement widespread among the well-to-do. The wealthy did not have to work, but there was no ethic of retirement drawing them from employment… Compulsory retirement, which had been growing slowly but noticeably since the late nineteenth century, expanded enormously in the years after the passage of Social Security, until by 1971, only a quarter of the men over sixty-five were still in the labor force. Whether by intention or not, Social Security has served as a powerful tool in the manipulation of the size of the labor market (57).

Social Security strongly influenced the elderly to leave the work force and enter a season of retirement. Retirement has existed in previous eras, but it was gradual. Men worked less as they aged and handed over aspects of the farm or business to others. Never has retirement existed as it has now. With no compass for this new phase of life and few models to imitate, the elderly were left to discover meaning for the remaining years they had left.

Family relationships have changed over the past century; there are new expectations regarding how the generations are to interact, when, and in what ways. The industrial revolution altered family structure with the primary function shifting from social-institutional to emotional-supportive. The modern family is nuclear not extended. A new sense of individualism and the desire for personal privacy has weakened ties between the generations. The decline of the patriarchal idea and a growing desire for economic independence displaced the elderly from a central place in the family and helped fuel age-segregation and a subsidiary role for grandparents.

Social security provided the means for independent living for the elderly. Separate residence for the generations become both desirable and possible in the twenty-first century. The desire to have enough money to remain independent appears to be the driving motive for the retired class (58). One of the clearest indications of the new way of life for the elderly is reflected in living situation. Today, grandparents desire a relationship that is “one of ‘closeness at a distance,’ of basically independent existence” (59). The desire for intimate independence shapes the older generations contact with younger generations.

Such views fit the newly predominant cultural view of grandparents as independent individuals whose most important responsibility was to maintain their autonomy. Stressing the advantages of retirement, experts warned their readers of the need to be financially secure. No aged person, they argued, should depend on relatives for support (60).

When the generations successfully achieved independence from one another, there was nothing to anchor them together and the elderly began to search for a purpose for their remaining years of life. As society fragments, seniors are encouraged to band together and take care of themselves because nobody else will (61). With no financial need to work, and limited involvement with family, the place that the elderly looked was to themselves. Independence from the generations led to indulgence for themselves. As a result, older adults started viewing autonomy and leisure as the goals of their “golden years.”

Because the new role of grandparents was not clearly defined, it came to be viewed as a frill, a role not essential to the functioning of the family or the growth and development of grandchildren. Grandparents themselves feared meddling in their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. So, while the relationship, when it existed, could be very positive, its limited and tenuous nature removed grandparents from the central hub of family life and placed them on the periphery with a minimal role.

Grandparents became companions to their grandchildren as independence meant they had no authoritative position or important economic role in the family (62). Experts counseled grandparents to “strive for love and friendship rather than demand respect and obedience. Grandparents coddled and cuddled rather than disciplined; they listened affectionately rather than spoke authoritatively” (63).

Society changed their definition of family from institution to companionship and one manifestation of this change is found in children’s literature about grandparenthood (64). A few notable titles of children’s books include Grandmas Are for Giving Tickles and Grandpas Are for Finding Worms. The children’s book What Grandpas and Grandmas Do Best suggest that grandparents are for playing hide-and-seek, singing a lullaby, building a sandcastle, and playing games. In Grandma, Grandpa, and Me grandparents are to play with, work along side, and have fun with. Children’s literature speaks of a grandparent’s role as one of playmate and companion.

Not only have the roles of grandparents changed, but the way in which Americans view the elderly has changed as well. A French doctor commented, early in the century, that the treatment of the elderly was a measure of the quality of society (65). As a group, “the aged have been taken up last and least by historians” which is “symptomatic of the shaky esteem the elderly command in contemporary society” (66).

We live in an era with an emphasis on youth. Any hint of gerontacracy, the rule of the old, is rejected (67). Adolescence is venerated as the ideal developmental stage of life. Children are encouraged to get there as quickly as they can, teenagers are urged to stay there as long as they can, while adults are prompted to return to that way of living (freedom from responsibility dominated by leisure) as soon as they can (68). Old people are often associated with the discarded values of the past while the glorification of youth embodies rebellion against constricting morality (69).

Grandparents adjusted their value system based on the place and purpose society gave to the elderly. Values shifted from leaving a family legacy and financial inheritance to a pleasant retirement experience. A bumper sticker occasionally seen on the car of elderly people captures this well, “We’re spending our children’s inheritance.” Instead of investing in future generations older couples are encouraged to “indulge themselves a little, in travel, little splurges, or whatever makes their last years more enjoyable” (70).

Andrew Blechman, author of Leisureville, explores what life is like as a retired person living in the Villages, a gated community in Florida. The Villages is larger than Manhattan, boasts a population over 100,000, has a golf course for every day of the month, its own newspaper, radio, and TV station, the Villages is missing only one thing: children. The Villages not only encourages, but legalized the segregation of ages from one another. No one under the age of nineteen may live there. Children may visit, but their stay is strictly limited to a total of thirty days a year (71). When Dave, one of the residents, was asked if he was uncomfortable living in a community without children, he answered, “I’m not thirteen…I want to spend time with people who are my own age” (72). Another resident says, “I raised my children and I didn’t want to raise anyone else’s” (73). These residents have an appreciation for a new and growing phenomenon in American culture: age segregation.

The impact of age segregation on communities, families, and churches is significant. Blechman notes the negative impact the departure of his neighbors to the Villages will have on his community,

Were the Andersons really going to drop out of our community, move to Florida, and sequester themselves in a gated geritopia? Dave and Betsy had volunteered on the EMS squad, and Betsy also volunteered at the senior center and our local hospice. By all accounts, they were solid citizens with many more years of significant community involvement ahead of them. And frankly, our community needed the Andersons…Rather than lead, they had chosen to secede (74).

Individuals who retire to communities where they have no family or roots have abandoned their obligations to those they left behind. The residents of the Villages do not attempt to conceal this fact, “at the Villages we spend our dollars on ourselves” and don’t have to think about the “problems” of our former communities and distant families (75). One resident states, “The only thing I worry about these days is my daily golf game” (76). A carefree lifestyle dominated by leisure pursuits and warm weather is the driving priority for those who live in the Villages.

The self-indulgent values of those who live in the Villages are not isolated to this one group but reflect the societies views of retirement and role of the elderly in America (77). Retirement communities such as the Villages are so prevalent the AARC, American Association of Retirement Communities, was created to encourage the formation of more retirement communities, support those that exist, and equip management to oversee them.

This new phase of life created an identity crisis in which older Americans began to ask what retirement was supposed to look like and what they were supposed to do with the remaining years they had left to live. Del Webb, a wealthy Arizonan entrepreneur, helped to redefine the role and place of the elderly in American society. In 1962, Time Magazine put Webb on the cover with the title,“The Retirement City: A New Way of Life for the Old” (78). Webb’s research suggested that retirees would welcome the opportunity to distance themselves from their families and limit involvement; something once thought impossible. Webb built one of the first retirement communities, located in Arizona, promising sunshine, low cost living, and something to do. Webb sold this lifestyle as the new American dream suggesting retirees had worked hard, and now it was time to pursue hobbies, play golf, and socialize with their peers.

Retirement is a recent phenomenon and the effects of this sociological revolution are just beginning to be understood. Historians are beginning to question the wisdom of retirement stating, “We grow troubled about the predominant retirement experience for the contemporary elderly” (79). In addition, “Gerontologists have long worried about the impact of cessation of work on the orientation, the basic sense of worth, of retirees” (80). Gerontologists have called the forced inactivity of the aged a social death that precedes biological death (81). Retirement has resulted in the loss of function and authority for the elderly while providing an abundance of leisure (82).

The impact of compulsory retirement, the emergence of mass affluence, and the development of the welfare state as an alternative to the family has existed long enough that we are now seeing the impact on the family. Researchers Kurt Luscher and Karl Pillemer argue that relationships in the family are structured so that they generate various types of ambivalence toward one another (83). One of the unique developments sociologically for American families is the isolation of the nuclear unit from extended family, which has resulted in the fragmentation, discontinuity, confusion, and uncertainty regarding how social relations should be conducted. In general, society has lost its compass regarding why the generations should interact, how they are to do so, and what responsibilities one has to the other. Due to dramatic accelerated change in a short period of time contemporary societal guidance about how relationships between the generations should be carried out has nearly disappeared.

It is likely that a percentage of Christian grandparents have embraced the Leisureville mentality and need a renewed biblical vision regarding their role in the family and purpose in society. The role of a grandparent in America in the twenty-first century is ambiguous, periphery, and is negotiated on a family- by-family, individual-by-individual basis. Grandparents life expectancy has increased from fifty years in 1900 to almost eighty years in the twenty-first century (84). The opportunity for grandparents to invest in their grandchildren’s lives has never been greater. Despite grandparents historically unparalleled opportunity to be involved in their grandchild’s life, the impact of their investments may have never been smaller than it is today (85).


1. Peter N. Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982), 2.

2. Donald Cowgill and Lowell D. Holmes, Modernization (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972).

3. Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 4.

4. Simon Goulart, The Wise Vieillard, or Old Man (London: Dawson, 1626), 113-121.

5. Antoine Yvan, La Trompette Du Ciel (Rouen: Gillies Gordon, 1719), 334.

6. Francis Bacon, The History of Life and Death (London, 1638), 275-282.

7. Brian Gratton and Carole Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents: Authority, Burden, Companion,” Generations 20:1 (1996): 13.

8. Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 6.

9. Ibid., 7.

10 Philip Silverman and Robert J. Maxwell, “Cross- Cultural Variation in the Status of Old People,” in Old Age in Preindustrial Society, ed. Peter N. Stearns (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982), 47.

11 Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 4.

12 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 7.

13 Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 7.

14 Carol Shammas, Marylynn Salmon, and Michel Dahlin, Inheritance in America: From Colonial Times to the Present (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 5.

15 Ibid., 7.

16 Ibid., 7.

17 Anonymous, “Age Old Intestate,” Harper’s Magazine, 1931, 715.

18 Ibid., 715.

19 Ibid., 715.

20 Ibid., 712-713.

21 Ibid., 713.

22 Ibid., 714.

23 Ibid., 717.

24 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 13.

25 Daniel Scott Smith, “Historical Change in the Household Structure of the Elderly in Economically Developed Societies,” in Old Age in Preindustrial Society, ed. Peter N. Stearns (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982), 249.

26 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 9.

27 Ibid., 9.

28 Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 12.

29 Shammas, Salmon, and Dahlin, Inheritance in America, 147.

30 2010 US Census, “The Older Population: 2010,” (accessed December 7, 2012).

31 David G. Troyansky, “Old Age in Rural Enlightened Provence,” in Old Age in Preindustrial Society, ed. Peter N. Stearn (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1982), 211.

32 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 9.

33 Steven Ruggles, “Intergenerational Coresidence and Economic Opportunity of the Younger Generation in the United States,” http://users.pop.umn. edu/~ruggles/popstud9.pdf (accessed December 7, 2012).

34 Samuel Butler, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, http:// ntsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed December 4, 2012), 15.

35 Anonymous, “Age Old Intestate,” 715-718.

36 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 10.

37 Ibid., 10.

38 Abraham Epstein, Facing Old Age: A Study of Old Age Dependency in the United States (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1922), 62.

39 Ruggles, “Intergenerational Coresidence and Economic Opportunity,” 3-4.

40 Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux, “Aging in a Never Empty Nest: The Elasticity of the Stem Family,” in Aging and Generational Relations over the Life Course: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective ed. T.K. Hareven (Berlin, de Gruyter), 75-99.

41 Ruggles, “Intergenerational Coresidence and Economic Opportunity,” 5.

42 Ibid., 6.

43 Ibid., 6.

44 Ibid., 7.

45 Troyansky, “Old Age in Rural Enlightened Provence,”214.

46 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 9.

47 Shammas, Salmon, and Dahlin, Inheritance in America, 3.

48 Ibid., 3.

49 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 9.

50 Steven Ruggles, Prolonged Connections: The Rise of theExtended Family in Nineteenth-Century England and America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), 57.

51 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 11.

52 Ibid., 11.

53 Ibid., 11.

54 Smith, “Historical Change in the Household Structure of the Elderly,” 249.

55 Shammas, Salmon, and Dahlin, Inheritance in America, 5.

56 Ibid., 149.

57 Ibid., 151.

58 Ibid., 153.

59 Beth B. Hess, “America’s Age Revisited: Who, What, When, and Why?” in Growing Old in America, 2nd ed., ed. Beth B. Hess (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1980), 9.

60 Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 12.

61 Andrew D. Blechman, Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 36.

62 Vern Bengston argues that family relationships across multiple generations are becoming increasingly important in American society (Vern L. Bengston, “Beyond the Nuclear Family: The Increasing Importance of Multigenerational Bonds,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63:1 (2001), 2). In 2012, over 40 percent of children were born out of wedlock and record numbers of couples are divorced every year. Due to the high number of single parent homes grandparents fulfill family functions such as childcare, financial assistance, even surrogate parenting. The USA Today reported that multigenerational living is on the rise again and has grown from 3.7 percent of all American homes in 2000 to 5.6 percent of all American homes in 2012 (Haya El Nasser, “Multigenerational Homes Increase,” USA Today, October 12, 2012 sec. A, pp. 3). The economic needs of previous generations created a mutually symbiotic relationship between generations. The generations needed each other to provide for basic life needs such as food, clothes, and housing. As economic needs continue to increase, it is plausible that the elderly’s purpose and place in society will continue to grow in importance.

63. Gratton and Haber, “Three Phases in the History of American Grandparents,” 13.

64. Vern L. Bengston, “Beyond the Nuclear Family: The Increasing Importance of Multigenerational Bonds,” in Journal of Marriage and Family 63:1 (2001): 1.

65. J. Grasset, La Fin de la vie, (La Chapelle-Montligeon: Lonquet, 1903), 20.

66. Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 1.

67, Steven R. Smith, “Growing Old in an Age of Transition,” in Old Age in Preindustrial Society, ed. Peter N. Stearns (New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers,1982), 202.

68. From a lecture given by Timothy Paul Jones at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, October 29, 2012.

69. Smith, “Growing Old in an Age of Transition,” 197.

70. Shammas, Salmon, and Dahlin, Inheritance in America,”160.

71. Blechman, Leisureville, 4.

72. Ibid., 4.

73. Ibid., 128.

74. Ibid., 7.

75. Ibid., 8; 11.

76 Ibid., 17.

77. Retirement communities and old age homes are a recent phenomenon. In 1929 there were 1,215 old age homes in America, predominately sponsored by churches and benevolent societies with nearly half requiring no fee for admission. Retirement commu- nities were not begun until 1920 when religious and labor groups purchased land in Florida. Since then, private builders have capitalized on the potential market among this elderly population in America and build communities all over the United States with the premier community being the Villages in Florida. For more see Steven R. Smith’s work in “Growing Old in an Age of Transition” in Old Age in Preindustrial Society.

78. Time Magazine. “The Retirement City: A New Way of Life for the Old.” in The Family: A Place in the Sun, cle/0,9171,896472,00.html (accessed October 5, 2012).

79.  Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 3.

80. Ibid., 3.

81. Troyansky, “Old Age in Rural Enlightened Provence,” 212.

82. Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society, 3.

83. Kurt Luscher and Karl Pillemer, “Intergenerational Ambivalence: A New Approach to the Study of Parent-Child Relationships in Later Life,” in Journal of Marriage and the Family (1998): 4.

84. David A. Coall and Ralph Hertwig, “Grandparental Investment: Past, Present, Future,” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33 (2010): 2.

85. Ibid., 2.

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.2 (Spring/Summer 2013).  You can access a PDF copy of this article here.]