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The rise of “granny nannies”
Ageing Articles

The rise of “granny nannies”

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Mdm Jess Tan with her five grandchildren. From giving tuition to whipping up hearty meals and sending her grandchildren to school, she enjoys doing them all.

When Mdm Jess Tan had her first grandchild in 2008, she flew to Hsinchu in Taiwan and stayed there for three months to take care of the newborn. Two years later, she did the same for her second grandchild, travelling back yet again for another three months.

On both trips, she was not alone. It was not just grandma, but great grandma who went abroad to help too. Mdm Tan, 63, was joined on her mission with her own mother, Mdm Chua Yang Soh, who is now 85.

“My mother and I really wanted to be there for them. My eldest daughter was living with her husband in Taiwan while he was deployed overseas for work. As her husband had work to attend to, it would be difficult for my daughter to care for her baby alone,” explained Mdm Tan in Mandarin.

Her hands-on approach towards bringing up her grandchildren might have been inherited from her own mother, who had previously been actively involved in raising her grandchildren. Mdm Chua has eight children, 24 grandchildren, and 15 great grandchildren. Even now, she still insists on helping every now and then, taking care of her great grandchildren.

“I was excited to see my great-grandchild in Taiwan. The three months passed really quickly, and I was happy to look after the baby and help prepare meals for everyone. I’m glad all of them are safely back in Singapore now,” said Mdm Chua, in Mandarin.

Seniors stepping into “parenting” roles

More grandparents are taking on the role of caring for their grandchildren, and this is a great help to working parents.

But there is also a new trend of the super-grandparent. Some go all out to pamper the newest additions to their lives by buying them gifts, bringing them on vacations, or being the dedicated driver to ferry them to and from school – and anywhere else.

In short, they indulge the young ones. And they can, with growing affluence and more time on their hands.

This growing demographic group are very much involved in their grandchildren’s lives more than ever before – in terms of time as well as money, according to a New York Times commentary.

“My generation is spending more money on our grandchildren, 64 per cent more than grandparents did just 10 years ago, doling out, for instance, roughly US$4.3 billion a year on primary and secondary school tuition. We’re also spending on everyday needs like baby food, clothes and tricycles as well as big-ticket items like the crib, the stroller, a piano,” said the writer.

Grandmother and grandsons on a cruise trip
Mdm Maureen Tan with two of her grandsons on a cruise. She is the proud grandmother of six grandchildren.

Mdm Maureen Tan, 69, has been a grandmother for almost 20 years. Like Mdm Jess Tan, she also travelled overseas to look after her grandchildren when her second daughter lived in the United States.

Between 2003 and 2006, she was shuttling between Singapore and the US up to four times a year, staying about a month each time. She even took care of her then two-year-old granddaughter in Singapore for a month before sending her back home to the US.

“I’m happy that I can still help out in many ways. Even though I’m almost 70, I can drive my grandchildren around now as I have a car – it was much tougher with my own children in the past when we didn’t have one,” she reflected, in Mandarin.

“Now I can afford to spend on my grandchildren. It was totally different almost half a century ago when the economy was bad and it was taking a toll on my family’s finances,” she added.

Grandchildren have been such a big part of her life. She quit her full-time job after her eldest daughter gave birth to her first grandchild, to help take care of her.

Today, Mdm Tan leads an active lifestyle – with a list of activities lined up for her – from learning Chinese calligraphy, singing and golf to, of course, taking her grandchildren out for some fun.

She will regularly bring them to shop, swim, as well as the library. She also travels overseas with her children and grandchildren – once, even bringing her grandchildren without their parents on a cruise.

“I don’t spoil my grandchildren, although I must admit I pamper them much more than my own kids. When they do wrong, I’ll discipline them, although this is something I leave to my children to handle. I’m just here to play with them,” she insisted.

“At my age, I don’t have any more big dreams. I exercise, look after the grandchildren, and go on holidays. But I realise that the most important thing is health – I need to be healthy enough to look after my grandchildren.”

Bridging the inter-generational gap

The benefits of promoting inter-generational ties lies not only in building bonds, but also giving the elderly a sense of purpose.

Dr Kalyani K. Mehta, head of the gerontology graduate programme at the Singapore University of Social Science, wrote in her book ‘Experiencing Grandparenthood: An Asian Perspective’, that grandparenting can be stressful, but it also gives them gratification and satisfaction.

At childcare and elderly care centres in Singapore, some acknowledge the benefits of inter-generational contact between pre-schoolers and seniors. They even schedule time to organise more inter-generational activities over the recent years.

One example is a collaboration between NTUC’s childcare My First Skool and eldercare Silver Circles. Children and seniors from both centres have been engaging in inter-generational activities ranging from baking moon cakes and making lanterns to playing familiar games such as Bingo.

“As our seniors participate in various activities within the inter-generational programme, their cognition and physical functions are strengthened,” shared Mr Chua Song Khim, CEO of NTUC Health.

“For many of them whose grandchildren have already grown up, this is also an opportunity for them to relive their nurturing experience as they interact with these pre-schoolers, while sharing life stories. This helps improve the seniors’ emotional health and gives them a stronger sense of purpose and dignity, enabling them to age successfully.”

The arts is another way where different generations, though far apart in time, can be brought much closer in the present.

In Taiwan, for instance, there is a History Alive programme that creates opportunities for seniors to connect with the community and the young through arts like theatre.

“The programme aims to abridge generational gaps between the elderly and the young. Through interactions between the old and young, we wish to change stereotypes against elderly people,” said its director Ms Tsai Ying-Ju, who has come to Singapore to speak on inter-generational issues.

 “The young can learn from the interaction with seniors, while the seniors can find purposes and happiness in their lives.”

Rewards for ageing

For Mdm Jess Tan, it is inter-generational interaction all day long. Now, she is currently bringing up the two children of her youngest daughter, whom she is living with.

She not only prepares meals and accompanies her two grandchildren to school, but also tutors them in English, Chinese, and mathematics – helping them with spelling and dictation, as well as simple mathematics at the lower primary level.

“I am very happy to be here for them. As much as they (grandchildren) can be playful and naughty at times, I love them a lot,” she said.

They are her reward in her golden years. Likewise, Singapore’s growing silver generation are also a reward for society and families. As a popular Chinese proverb goes: “A family with an old person is a living treasure of gold”.


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