But Grandma, a lot has happened in the last 40 years...
September 3, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me improve my relationship with my grandparents? They recently moved across the country to be closer to family (my parents, my sister and me + husband). We've grown apart since I transitioned from child to adult (which I think is fairly normal) and I was looking forward to having them in the same city to get closer again. This is turning out to be more difficult than originally premised. Special snowflake details within.

The relationship now is very superficial. I know they care about me and I'm sure they "love" me, but they are not very expressive at showing this (at least in ways I understand) and we aren't really connecting on anything.

Some complicating factors:
- We don't really have much in common (aside from the fact that I have their genetic material, of course). Grandma and I share a love of reading, but she tends to read genres that are very different than I do. I am actually in a similar career field to what Grandpa did before he retired, but this is not a great bonding point because I get a feeling of disapproval that I am working in what is traditionally a male dominated field.

- Neither are really interested in anything "new", and by that, I mean anything from the last 40 years. This applies to music, movies, theatre, books, even food. Attempts to introduce them to anything new are generally met with dismissal. For example, I was talking about how excited I was about the new Doctor Who premier. Since Grandma is interested in some sci fi / fantasy, I told her she should give it a try. She basically said, "Oh, does the Doctor have a long scarf and eat Jelly Bellies?" When we explained that no, this was a reboot of the old series, she basically said she wasn't interested in any Doctor more recent than Tom Baker.

- Neither one is very mobile, although my Grandma is worse than my Grandpa. Anything that requires more than walking about 100 yards or any stairs is too far for my Grandma. This eliminates going to museums, going to movies, plays or musicals (although we have made this work by dropping her off at the door and taking her straight to her seat), shopping, parks, ball games, cooking.

- Grandpa is hard of hearing, won't admit it, and won't see a doctor about it. The family dynamic on that side is such that no one can really talk to him about it. This makes group interactions very difficult because the rest of the group will be having a discussion and he'll make a comment that is completely off topic that completely derails the conversation, or try to get into a separate conversation with just the person seated next to him. I know one solution to this would be to spend more time with him one on one but this is difficult because he also really values having the whole family together. And because, as previously mentioned, we basically have nothing in common to talk about.

- Grandpa also has some views and beliefs that I find very troubling. Although I recognize that this is partly a generational issue, when he makes homophobic, racist, or sexist remarks, I am not able to simply bite my tongue and change the topic. Usually by this point, he has had a few drinks and since he can't really hear what I said, his response is to repeat his point more loudly and more forcefully. I then realize my drink needs refilling and leave the room for a few minutes to calm down. Another reason I am hesitant to spend much one on one time with him, because when he pulls that crap, it would be more difficult for me to gracefully excuse myself.

Some things I plan on doing -
- Try to find some books that I enjoyed that my grandmother would enjoy reading and pass them on to her and try to get her to read them. She is a fairly voracious reader, so I could probably convince her to try some new stuff. The rest of my family (except Grandpa) are also readers, so I might try to get everyone to read the same book at the same time and then we can have a mini book club to discuss.
- Organize outings with Grandpa even if Grandma can't come, probably to ball games or similar. I have no interest in sports, but he likes watching them, so we will try that.
- Keep looking for something where I can meet Grandpa on his level without feeling like I am going to gouge my eyeballs out. I haven't come up with anything yet, but I'm hoping I might if I keep looking.

What other things can I be doing to try to better connect with my grandparents? What can I be doing to better cross the generational gap?
posted by pallas14 to Human Relations (25 answers total)
Why don't you take an interest in things from 40 years ago?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:03 AM on September 3, 2012 [10 favorites]

It sounds as though you're spending a lot of time trying to get your grandparents interested in the new things you enjoy. Why not ask them for suggestions of things they enjoy, and then try out those things yourself? Get some DVDs of the Tom Baker Doctor Who and watch those together. Ask for music and book recommendations, read or listen to them, and then go over to their house for a mini book club or listening party.
posted by decathecting at 11:05 AM on September 3, 2012

Yeah... I have. Especially since growing up, these things were most of what we did while visiting. And I'm a bit of an old soul, so I also love Frank Sinatra, big band music, old musicals, old black and white movies, etc etc etc. Many of the books I read growing up were given to / recommended to me by Grandma.

Many of the times we do manage to get them out of the house its for a revival for one of these things - for example, a local production of "The Music Man," so it's not that I only want them to take an interest in new things. But at some point there has to be something new. I know every word of "The Music Man" by heart (and so do they) and as wonderful as Robert Preston and Shirley Jones are, I don't want to watch it again.

So I guess part of the problem is that it's not just that they are only interested in things from things 40 years ago... it's that they are only interested in the things from 40 years ago that they've been into for my whole life.
posted by pallas14 at 11:16 AM on September 3, 2012

Would any of you be interested in doing a genealogy project together? They will be able to identify lots of people in old photos, and maybe the trip down memory lane will inspire some new adventures for you -- ie, you find old fishing trip photos of them and say, hey, do you want to try that again?

You might also try to get them to do a Story Corps segment with you -- surely they have a story to tell, and maybe the act of recording it will get them interested in doing more newfangled multimedia things.

Is Grandma crafty? Many happy intergenerational hours can be spent knitting, quilting, etc.

It's nice that you want to spend more time with them...hope you find some mutually enjoyable common ground!
posted by apparently at 11:24 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think what you are experiencing is uncommon at all. There are some families where there is very good intergenerational bonding, others where that is not the case. Some people in the family will bond more than others. Age also plays an effect, in that it can affect emotional intelligence.

In my family, on my father's side for example, my grandmother and grandfather died pretty young - early sixties and early seventies. They left behind a couple of great aunts (my great aunts) on my father's side. While we had an excellent relationship early on in my life, it became difficult to engage with them later on, when I was in my twenties, presumably because I was a bit of a typical self-absorbed twenty-something, also because of different interests (they were devout evangelical Baptists), and also because of age - probably the low emotional intelligence I possessed at that age didn't mix well with their declining emotional intelligence, that is, the ability to engage and sustain conversations while reading the other person correctly.

I think, though, that it was enough for them to have me around from time to time.

There's also the idea of enduring family dynamics - when we interact with family we tend to travel back in time in a certain way, so you may want to investigate how things used to be in your family when you were younger, and how you interacted.

However, it may be unrealistic to expect a meaningful relationship based on what you think a meaningful relationship ought to be. As I mentioned, they may be happy enough having your around drinking tea or whatever. If you are struggling for conversation, bring something to eat or drink, or some flowers or something.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:27 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

You didn't mention this if anyone has an interest in the subject, but perhaps tracing the family history could become a shared hobby.

Seconding taking an interest in their interests - i.e., not simply things that are 40 years old, but things that they are actually interested in.

I'm sorry that I don't have any advice re the hateful nonsense. If I were in your place, I would simply leave the room every time the topic was raised - doesn't necessarily change anything, but helps me keep my cool.
posted by she's not there at 11:27 AM on September 3, 2012

It's nice that you want the relationship to be deep, but it seems like far more trouble than it's worth to force it. You say they love you, and you are obviously interested in making them a larger part of your life, so...couldn't it just be shallow? Can you be around them and do things together that don't involve meaningful topics or activities? Take them to the store and talk about what stuff they need to buy, or go to dinner and talk about the food, or go to their house and talk about the counter-tops or the flowers in the garden, or sit around and talk about other family members - you know, how this person is related to that person, etc. That might not feel like "quality" time to you, and even as I'm typing it it sounds really boring. But boring is better than frustrating as hell, which it sounds like the other way would be.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:35 AM on September 3, 2012 [12 favorites]

Also, record their stories while they are still around to tell them - audio and/or video, if possible, transcriptions, if not. And, if they aren't comfortable talking while you take notes, listen when they repeat themselves and write what you remember later.
posted by she's not there at 11:37 AM on September 3, 2012

But at some point there has to be something new.

Except their really doesn't, for them. A lot of older people just are not prepared to invest in the present the way they are in the past. The grandparents who are not like this are exceptional, and it sort of doesn't really matter anyway - if that's the way your grandparents are, they are not going to change at this point. In our family we have one grandmother who is exceptional in this way, and 7 others who were increasingly difficult and set in their ways as their worlds got smaller and smaller. I consider us lucky with the one.

Things you can do: watch old movies, some of which are really good. Create new photo albums together. Play cards. Do crosswords together. Garden. Get your grandparents to teach you or your kids to dance. You kind of have to tolerate the boring in their decline the same way you tolerate the boring of patty-cake and "read it again! again!" when your kids are on their way up. It can be superficial and still be companionable and close.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:54 AM on September 3, 2012 [13 favorites]

That's what is called family relationships - you get to pick your friends based on shared interests, with family you make do with whatever common ground there is. I love my father and I know he loves me but the fact remains that we have absolutely nothing in common these days except for common memories of my childhood. This became painfully obvious again when he visited me in early spring - trying to keep conversation going was like pulling teeth. Family members you really do share interests with are rare. Treasure them.

What I am saying is that you have to adjust your expectations. It is unlikely that they will become interested in stuff you find interesting...chances are you'll get to listen to Sinatra or whatever it may be for as long as they are around. If you find that difficult remind yourself that these people probably indulged you for endless hours as a young child and read the same story to you over and over for example. Now you get to repay the favour.

If you want to make this more interesting get them to talk about their lives whilst listening to Sinatra. When did they first come across that piece of music? What do they like about it and why. Ask follow up questions. Get them to talk about what their life was like when they were your age. What were their dreams or hopes or fears? Get out old photo albums and talk about the people in the pictures. You may well be surprised by what you hear. If nothing else this helps you understand your family history more. If you're lucky you'll get a deeper understanding of the people your grandparents were and of how 'history' translated into their daily lives.

Finally, are there any activities you can share? I remember cooking and baking with my grandmother. She'd tell me off for not doing things properly but I nevertheless learned some old family recipes, the kind of thing not written down anywhere. Now that she has passed away I am the only person in the family who knows how to make some of these dishes the way she did...find something, anything, you can do together. They'll appreciate your company and your interest.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:03 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll probably have better luck just meeting them where they are. If your grandmother wants to watch old school sci-fi, watch some with her. (That could be really fun.) I'm pretty close with my grandmother, but we usually talk about what everyone in the family is up to, cooking, knitting, how cute my nephews are, etc. When my grandfather was alive, we talked about...um. I don't remember. We didn't talk much, but I know he loved me. I think he would ask me how work/school was and I'd tell him and I'd ask him how work/the yard/garage was and he'd tell me. That was about it. We just didn't have a super-lot in common. I had fun digging through old pictures and making them tell me who everyone was and tell me stories about what was going on in the pictures. Have you ever asked your grandparents how they met? I was in twenties before I thought it ask and it was a great story!

As for your grandfather making sexist or racist comments, probably leaving the room is the best strategy. I'd say something like, "Please don't make comments like that around me. It's untrue and offensive" and leave the room. I've done this and it works (sort of) eventually.
posted by Aquifer at 12:47 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

pallas14, try as you will, you cannot make the grandparents young again. There is a point at which people are simply not interested in what is new, and might not be interested in what they liked years ago. Most elderly are distracted by their failing health - even though g-pa will not admit that he needs hearing aids, and g-ma needs a walker.
Note: g-pa possibly prefers TV sports to 'being there' because he does not have to go to the trouble of getting to the ball field which might be exhausting for him. And he can turn up the volume so he can hear, and/or put on the captions.
posted by Cranberry at 1:03 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the replies. Lots of very good advice here - I'm not going to mark any best answers because I'd end up marking pretty much all of them.

The genealogy / recording family history idea is a very good one, and one that I think has a lot of possibility as something that we can all do together.

I also appreciate the reality check that I need to relax my expectations, do what I am able to meet them where they are, and let that be enough.
posted by pallas14 at 1:11 PM on September 3, 2012

All my grandparents passed away when I was non-existent, very young, or in college, so I don't have direct experience with the generational gap issue (more's the pity) - BUT. The sexist/racist/$-ist stuff - oy my dad.

It took a very very long time but any time he would do anything like that, I would say, "You know that you and I are not going to agree and I'm not interested in a fight, so let's not, okay?" or something similar. If he refused to let up, I would excuse myself for long enough for him to find something else to talk about. I prefer this to silently disappearing for a number of reasons, chiefly that my position is clear but I'm explicitly declining to have a mean/hurtful interaction, while indicating that the interaction, if continued, will be mean/hurtful toward ME. It helps engage his empathy meter, for me if nothing else. Nowadays he'll start in and I can just sort of raise my eyebrows and look at him like he's crazy. "You KNOW this isn't going to be fun or end well, right?"

Pavlov, man. Pavlov.
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:11 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have the same relationship with my grandparents (when I was young I we were very, very close-- my family actually lived in a trailer house in their yard for awhile, so we were always together). I have a feeling your grandparents like to be around you, but they also probably moved in large part for your parents and just the feeling of being around their family. Things we do together almost always include my mom, and involve cooking Sunday dinner, drinking coffee, playing cards, and talking about the price of meat/the price of gas, along with a healthy dose of family gossip. When my grandma was alive, we'd talk about already established things from our shared past (movies, books, playing music). I realize there are no new suggestions here but I think this is very within the realm of a normal grandparent/grandchildren relationship.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:25 PM on September 3, 2012

Oh, but it's not a terrible idea to occasionally suggest a new TV show that's easy to get into. My grandma developed quite an interest in South Park before she passed away.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:27 PM on September 3, 2012

I am currently helping an elderly acquaintance write her life story. Basically, she tells me the details of her life as I transcribe it to my laptop (I'm a pretty good typist and only occasionally ask her to slow down or repeat something.) In our sessions, she just speaks about whatever comes to mind and later I edit it in to our master copy. She can skip around and talk about whatever she wants. If she needs a little help, I ask her questions about her favorite foods, toys, family events and members, etc. We've also talked extensively about race relations, politics, etc. It's been fascinating for me, and empowering for her. I recommend it as a great way to reconnect to your grandparents and gain some understanding of the hows and whys of their life.
posted by raisingsand at 1:30 PM on September 3, 2012

i used to HATE hanging out with my grandmother, it was so boring and i felt dead inside and just trying to struggle to have a good time. Then, from watching how my boyfriend interacted with his grandma i started asking her questions about what her life was like before, how she felt about different things (her sisters dying, her volunteer work, how she dealt with people at her retirement home, the poems she loved, what boarding school was like when she was young) and then i gained such a close relationship with her that i would say i was her best friend. the questions really cut to what was important for her, and it wasn't necessarily what i would consider important for me, but in learning about what she went through i gained a respect and admiration i hadn't had before. she also started to feel a little more "worthwhile" than before and would ask my opinion about things - totally unheard of before our transition. the time we spent together in the last 5 years of her life were so wonderful, and i'm so grateful to have made the effort.

good for you for persevering, and good luck! it's worth it.
posted by andreapandrea at 2:05 PM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is what we call, "set in their ways," in my family. They are set in their ways, that's all. My Mom didn't think the First Lady should wear slacks (although she herself wore them) and girls should not play basketball (after seeing them on TV). I should always wear my hair up and never go out alone, even when I was in my early 40's, because she would worry too much and something bad might happen to me.

However, I could relate to my Mom by watching Gigi with her on TV, talking to her about cooking, or growing up during the Depression, listening to her stories. Because she was my age once, and had been through a lot. Same with my Dad.

People are a product of their times. Yes, sometimes they get stuck in long held beliefs. But I always found the history and the stories so fascinating, that I ignore the other stuff. I recently found out that my Dad went to grade school in a town not far from where I live now, and that was where he had his first puppy. I never knew that. My Dad doesn't necessarily want to hear me talk: he wants me to listen. I would be all over listening and recording or writing down stories, because it's not a reflection on you: it's them talking about their lives, their generation. Especially food: that was where we all connected. What's for supper? How do you cook it?

My Dad telling me about having to get stamps to buy sugar during WWII, can you imagine that? I would give a lot to be able to have my grandma alive today so I could talk to her more, as she did genealogy and she was whip smart. Instead, I was peeved because she made me play Scrabble (boring at the time), and constantly corrected my grammar. I don't think you can force the modern world onto people who have lived in this world for many years, because they were once your age, and they had elders doing the same thing to them. I find your descriptions of them lovely, their characters, their uniqueness, and I would want to gobble it all down into a book, but that's just me.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:06 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your grandparents are a lot like my grandparents. When we visit, we keep it pretty short and simple--we go out for a meal together and/or play a game they like, like dominoes. I ask a lot of questions to keep the conversation going; I've done well by asking about their families growing up, what they did before they retired, what my mom and uncles were like as kids, etc. It's not perfect, but hey, families never are.
posted by pril at 3:44 PM on September 3, 2012

Would your Grandma be open to riding in a wheelchair? You can get a lightweight folding "transfer chair" which is fine for strolling around museums or entering theaters. It's the kind of chair that you push, the person in the chair just rides.

I suggest this because I use a wheelchair and I get around so much more since I stopped trying to hobble around. I know some folks feel funny about using a chair, but the freedom to go places makes it worthwhile. They are not very expensive and you can pick up a used one on craigslist or Goodwill or yardsales for for little. Who know, Grandma might enjoy going for "walks" around the neighborhood with you.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 7:36 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty close with my grandmother and, well, to a certain extent that's just how it is with grandparents. Sometimes we'll have more meaningful discussions, where I'll ask her about old times or we'll talk politics (she's surprisingly non-conservative for an old lady). Sometimes I like to explain to her a bit about how things work today, just to keep her on her toes. But mostly, we just chat about what we've been doing (usually more me; she doesn't get out much) or what people in the family are up to, or we'll watch TV or play cards. I think she just appreciates me coming by regularly and keeping her company. That's the cool thing about grandparents, most of them are just happy to have you around. I think it's great that you want to try to find ways to bond with them, but they're old and set in their ways and it's quite likely that just having you around constitutes bonding in their minds.

That said, you should totally ask them about what it was like in "their" day. Yes, old people tend to romanticize the past, but you'll still hear some pretty cool stuff.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:47 PM on September 3, 2012

Would they be open to meeting new friends close to their age? You could introduce them to, say, a friend's grandparents and arrange a get-together (that you attend) every so often. More people = more to talk about, and you often learn interesting things about your own family from hearing events or people described to an outsider. Also, folks are more likely to be on their best behavior when non-relatives are around, so you may have less of the unenlightened commentary to deal with.
posted by lakeroon at 8:04 PM on September 3, 2012

A good way to get them talking about themselves is to ask them a series of questions. For instance, cars. What was you first car? Then what did you buy? And so on. That can take up an afternoon and you get so many good stories that way. (also, tell me about the house or apartment you lived in when you were first married, who was in your wedding, etc.).
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:39 PM on September 3, 2012

I agree about asking them questions about their lives - looking at old photographs with my grandmother was good for this.

I also have had the best times with Grandma when we were working together, or I was helping her do something. This could be as simple as a jigsaw puzzle, but I've also shucked corn for freezing, potted flowers and arranged them at my grandfather's grave, and escorted her across the country so she could go on a cruise to Alaska!

The trick with her was to ask myself along, rather than offer help. She will never take help. But if you say, hey, I'd like to learn to play backgammon, can you teach me? Or, I know you usually put your plants out front around this time - can I come over and do that with you? When you're working side by side, or have an objective, the conversation is sometimes easier.

I also gossip with my Grandmother - she will sometimes listen to my life stories and troubles, too.

She is affectionate but not sentimental, so relating to her can be hard work! I moved away a couple of years ago and I miss her a lot!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 12:33 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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