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The Joys of Grandparenthood [Interview]

National Grandparents Day is Sunday, Sept. 10! To celebrate, we sat down with our own Maureen O’Leary, Program Manager for our National Institute of Senior Centers, and Jim Firman, NCOA’s President and CEO, to discover what they value most about being grandparents. See what they had to say!

How many grandchildren do you have and what are their ages?

Maureen: I have one granddaughter, Emelia who is 6, and two grandsons, Max who is 13 and James who is 4 months.

Jim: I officially have one granddaughter, Julietta, and she’s almost 8. But I have been a surrogate grandfather/granduncle to several nieces and nephews. I think it’s a very limiting idea that you can only be a grandparent for your children’s children.

What are your favorite things to do with your grandchildren?

Jim: I just enjoy spending time with Julietta, which usually involves playing whatever game she wants—it’s kind of nice in a way to get bossed around by a 7-year-old. Her game of choice is usually pretend, and the pretend game always involves some type of adventure. She’s always a princess, and she always makes me play some type of adventurer, like a pirate.

Maureen: I love any time with them, any experience. whether it’s a sleepover, dinner, or watching them play basketball or perform in a play—it is time well spent. One thing that is particularly fun is going on a trip to nowhere. We will be driving home, a little outside of our regular area and at an intersection, I’ll say, “I don’t know where this road goes, let’s take it,” and we’ll be on an adventure, a trip to nowhere. They love it! I also love when they sleep over. They are 6- and 13-year-old foodies, so the night always begins with negotiating our restaurant. Then we watch the most current Disney film. And in the morning, we always have pancakes (with blueberries or chocolate chips and whipped cream), and for Max, bacon. It is probably the only time I cook bacon, but I imagine their memory of me will be intertwined with the smell of bacon cooking in the morning.

What is the most valuable thing you have taught—or wish to teach—your grandchildren?

Jim: I don’t know if I’ve taught her anything; she’s taught me. She keeps me grounded. I just try to let her know she’s loved and I’m there to support her. And I hope she always remembers me being very loving, and knows that she can accomplish anything.

Maureen: I hope to teach them how to be courageous, how to be themselves, and to love music. Like any real lesson, you show them by example. I began playing the ukulele about six years ago, and in a reversal of roles, they come and see me perform. My first ukulele performance was with a ukulele orchestra in front of 600 people. Now, whenever I’m a bit nervous about an upcoming performance, Max will say “Bubbe (my grandmother name—I’m not Jewish, but have a Bubbe friend), how can you be nervous? You’ve played in front of 600 people.”

I also hope to share how to be kind by caring for an older friend and how you should “do the right thing.” One time when putting Emelia in her car seat, the door swung open and dented the car next to me. No one was nearby. Max was nervous about what to do; he expected the person would be upset. I told him, “All you do is write a note with your contact info and put it under the windshield wiper.” Just as I was placing the note, the owner walked out. He said, “Don’t worry about it, this car has a million dents.”

For 4-month-old James, who is half Italian and lives in Belgium, I hope to show him how I love him by learning Italian. I’m on CD #18 and can only say a few things, but I have a few years to prepare.

What do you value most about being a grandparent?

Maureen: Being a grandparent is a great experience—to love someone unconditionally and be loved back and to play a small but important role in their lives, without total responsibility, is having your cake and eating it too. I recommend it for everyone!

Jim: I value that I sometimes have more time to spend with my grandchildren than I did with my own children. I had four children and was always working. But I’ve come to realize how precious every moment is. Grandchildren are a wonderful bonus for having children, and I’m lucky my granddaughter lives nearby. I have friends who lament that their grandchildren don’t live nearby, or that they don’t have grandchildren of their own. I think a lot of people are missing out on wonderful experiences, and it’s because they don’t take advantage of the opportunity to interact with the kids who live close to them.

Tell us what you love most about being a grandparent in the comments below!

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About Jim Firman and Maureen O'Leary

Jim Firman is President & CEO of NCOA. For more than 30 years, Firman has been a leading force for innovation in services, programs, and public policies for older persons. He created NCOA's Aging Mastery Program®.

Maureen O'Leary has been Program Manager for NCOA's National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) since 2007.