Exploring the lives of new age nanas

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New research about the experiences of Australian grandmothers has yielded surprising results – including tales of unexpected passion and a flood of enthusiasm for the project from grandmothers.

Co-researcher Professor Doreen Rosenthal said, “We had 150 of the 1200 respondents emailing us directly to thank us for researching their stories. I’ve had many years’ experience in research but this was astonishing. It really hit a nerve.”

Until her retirement in 2008, Professor Rosenthal AO was Professor of Women’s Health and Director of what became the Centre for Women’s Health, Gender and Society at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, where she is now Professor Emeritus. The project was conducted in collaboration with her long-term research colleague, Professor Susan Moore, of Swinburne University of Technology.

The study is believed to be a world first in applying an evidence-based approach to the experiences of ‘ordinary’ grandmothers. Its methodology included a survey and 24 in-depth interviews. Most the 1205 survey responses were completed online. The youngest grandmother was 34 and the oldest was 92 with the average age being 63. Most of the grandmothers had two to three grandchildren, with whom they spent an average total of 12 hours per week.

The researchers have distilled their findings into a lively book, New Age Nanas, published in 2012, which is enriched by many excerpts from the highly personal interviews.

The research ranged widely across life themes like how becoming a grandmother affected relationships with the grandmother’s own children and her in-laws, and the profound impact of the grandmother’s bond with her grandchild. The latter elicited an outpouring of personal anecdotes about the ‘magical love’ a grandchild ignited, with most grandmothers characterising the relationship as joyous and unexpectedly intense.

Alongside the ‘falling in love’ experience, another unexpected theme was the ‘antidote to ageing’ bonus of being a grandmother. “Women talked about feeling renewed as a person and gaining a younger perspective by seeing the world through their grandchild’s eyes,” Professor Rosenthal said. Grandmothers relished having fun and being physically active with their grandchildren.“Some had done exercise classes and gone on diets to become fitter so they could be with the grandchildren.”

Professor Rosenthal said the dramatic changes in women’s roles over the past 40 years was reflected in the non-traditional approach the study participants took to grandmothering, compared to their own grandmothers. “Most of our grandmothers were working and were fitter. They wanted to do things like travel and were out there playing sport or bridge and being involved,” she said. “The world has become so much more complicated and these women were engaged with the world in a way that is quite new.”

The rise of divorce and repartnering had added another layer of complexity, and sometimes tension, to family relationships that the grandmothers were mostly able to negotiate. “Quite a number of our grandmothers are themselves divorced and repartnered and they were dealing with their partner’s kids or grandkids,” she said. “Some of our women were dealing with very dysfunctional families because of problems with drugs or alcohol and I don’t think that was as big an issue 50 years ago.”

Each of the book’s chapters ended with deft advice under the heading ‘Nana Know-how’, but Professor Rosenthal sees New Age Nanas as more than a self-help guide. “I hope this book offers insights to a grandmother who may be troubled about a relationship or her role, and that these shared experiences reassure her that she is not alone.”

Professor Rosenthal and Professor Moore are in 2012 exploring similarly uncharted territory: the experiences of ‘ordinary’ Australian grandfathers. New Age Nanas is published by Big Sky Publishing. More information about the research projects is at: http://grandresearch.com/