Surrogate grandparents are as real as they come

The bond between children and surrogate grandparents can be just as strong.
The bond between children and surrogate grandparents can be just as strong. Photo: Getty Images

When I visit Merle, I always head straight to the kitchen. I play with Eddie, her black Labrador, feed him a few biscuits and get settled at the table while Merle makes cups of tea for us.

We talk about anything and everything we can think of: politics, dogs, the weather, the newest cafe to open, and work. It’s a ritual that I look forward to days in advance.

To an outsider, my visit appears to be simply the typical act of a granddaughter visiting her grandmother. But Merle and I are not related. She isn’t a family friend either. She is my surrogate grandmother.

I didn't even realise I was in the market for a new grandparent until it dawned on me that the dynamics between Merle and I were exactly what I had with my maternal grandparents - safe, comfortable and a wonderful role-model.

While Merle's and mine relationship developed organically, there are plenty of people who have gone out searching for a grandparent-grandchild relationship.

Sydney-based Cate Kloos launched 'Find a Grandparent' in May 2012, after moving to Australia from Germany. While she enjoyed a close-knit relationship with her grandparents in her native country, she realised her own children would be without their extended family. She wanted them to benefit in the same way that she had.

“My grandmother was a wonderful woman. She was very patient and understanding and always did things for me,” Kloos says.

Grandparents, she says, offer a different but essential kind of support; because they are often retied, they can spend more quality time with young children.

“I think parent have to be a bit more strict, they can't indulge the kids so much. And the parents often have a lot more stress, they have the pressure of going to work and running a household.”

Find A Grandparent works much like a match-making service, where young families or individuals can ask for someone to act as a grandparent figure in their life and vice versa. So far, several hundred families have made connections and spend time doing typical activities - lunch, going to the movies and the zoo and sharing stories.

Kloos says the relationship, whether it be biological or other, is especially important for kids and young adults.

“It is very important to have another person to turn to when they have problem; often grandparents have a different approach to life.”

In research tabled at the American Sociological Associations 108th annual meeting in August 2013, it was revealed that those who share a close bond were less likely to show symptoms of depression.

“The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health,” the report stated.

Researchers from Boston College analysed data from 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren, which also revealed that grandparents experienced better mental health if they were able to provide support or care for a grandchild.

More and more, the relationship between the two generations is being acknowledged and in 2011, the New South Wales government created Grandparents Day to recognise the “vital role” they play in society" ”...both as custodians of individual and cultural memories and as providers of care, love and guidance to their children and grandchildren"”.

For grandchildren, the relationship gives them a role model to look up to and helps make them feel safe and wanted. It provides them with a sense of continuation that parents alone cannot provide.

And for grandparents, being part of a child's life - of being connected with a new generation - may give them a renewed sense of purpose and help keep them connected with this ever-changing world. It's also about passing down family history and heritage and ensuring that traditions are maintained.

But if you don't have this biologically, it doesn't mean you should miss out. My grandparents died within three years of each other, when I was in my teens. I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't appreciate them while I could. Instead of realising that they were an asset, I would moan about having to go to my mother's parents house for Sunday lunch across town. As a child, I was more concerned with what cartoons I would miss out on watching.

It was a typically selfish response, one I didn't realise until it was too late. It was only after their passing that the space they had filed become obvious. I realised how many things they did for me, from making a mix tape of music they thought I'd like to making my favourite ultra-crunchy potatoes when I came to visit. These were things that weren't replicated by anyone else.

I feel fortunate that I’ve gained enough wisdom to appreciate the role Merle plays in my life. We may not share the same blood, but we share a bond that’s as strong as any other.