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Out of Mothballs

Exactly what part they are expected to play and how involved they become depends on circumstances not necessarily of their own making. The sudden demise of one or both parents is not unheard of, and ill-health puts such a strain on family relationships that minding children is an extra burden that only makes matters worse. In these cases, the children are left wanting, a situation few grandparents would turn their backs on. Then there are the wayward kids, those who, for whatever reason, have gone off the rails to the point where their parents can no longer cope. Yes, it can be hard raising children at any time of life, so it would seem unfair to expect the oldest generation to step into the breech; but they do, and they do it well. Maybe they can't slam-dunk a few hoops, or kick a soccer ball around anymore, but the wisdom and experience they have gained over the years, not to mention a certain mellowing of temperament, makes them ideal mentors, teachers and confidantes. Surprisingly, there seems to be a mutual respect between quite young and pretty old which is often missing in the original family set up. Perhaps this extended generation gap is a necessary factor, the parties in the new arrangement being far enough removed that they can actually see where the other is coming from. Whereas they wouldn't think twice about having a blazing row with Mum or Dad, children tend to be more considerate of their grandparents and less inclined to back-chat them. There is, apparently, a definite connection between the youngest and oldest members of the family unit, something of a re-discovery in a way, because the important role of elders as child-minders might have been taken for granted in the past, but in modern times it seemed to have been forgotten.

The tendency to consider those approaching their use-by date as superfluous is a product of the throw-away society we embrace. Naturally you can't just take them down to the dump along with the busted lawn mower, but often they are barely tolerated, a nuisance-factor that takes up space, a constant reminder that you with your technology have lost the plot, and the old days were far better, according to their frequently repeated stories of "when they were young". Because they've heard these anecdotes so many times, their own children turn a deaf ear; but their children's children seem to soak up these fascinating tales of yesteryear with relish. Not only is there entertainment value in the stories but, like most fairy tales, they are intertwined with morals and consequences, consideration and responsibility, those necessary pillars of civilisation that schools have been trying to cement into kids for ages. But did any of them listen to the teachers? Probably not, because the ones telling them, although older, were still too young, so what would they know? The really old ones, however, must know - they'd been there, done that and, despite it being a bit frayed around the neck, they were still wearing the T shirt! Old-fashioned ideals would seem to be coming back into vogue; and who better to impart them than old-fashioned practitioners?

More even-tempered than the immediate parents, these further-removed relatives can bring a tolerance and stability to the family, a calming influence that is almost a lost art in these days of rush and tear. As for healthy living, the wrinklies are definitely on the ball. They aren't averse to the odd take-out pizza or Thai, but when they do cook, which is most of the time, it is real food that actually tastes good. Before Nan took over the kitchen, no self-respecting kid would even look at broad beans or a brussel sprout; now they are prepared to give them a go. That's the result of respect and concern for another's feelings - mind you, youngsters would probably draw the line when it came to liver and onions, something that Grandma knows instinctively.

Organisation and etiquette are also skills being re-invented, but in ways that can be accepted - slowly, carefully and appreciative of the fact that bad habits can't be changed overnight. There will be disagreements over this and other "new" rules as they are introduced, but they are less emotional and heated. Throwing a tantrum while screaming at the top of your voice is a waste of energy when Grand-pop just sits quietly and waits for you to finish making a fool of yourself. Afterwards, there are no recriminations. The wise old man simply listens and talks and understands; and somehow manages to fix the problem that no-one else could. There's no secret to this: it is born of a long life spent learning many things, making plenty of mistakes when his own children were young, and being older and wise enough not to repeat them. It is a wonderful solution and will endure all the time the old folk can keep on keeping on.

How long that is likely to be will probably be down to health issues that come with old age. I can almost guarantee that willingness won't be a factor, because grandparents are simply grandparents till their dying day. They won't shirk their responsibility, not where family is concerned; and even after they are gone, the legacy of their guidance will continue: in the minds of their children who will become grandparents themselves one day; and especially in the hearts of the grandchildren. Some might consider this devotion to duty a selfless act of charity; I believe, however, it is quite the opposite: the old ones may seem to be putting their autumn years on hold; but they are actually giving themselves a second chance by thoroughly enjoying a wonderful rejuvenated springtime.

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