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FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

“She comes, they are happy”: How communal grandparents are helping raise Finnish children

Communal grandmother Marjatta Ahonen reads a book to children on a red couch.
Annabelle Timsit/Quartz
Communal grandmother Marjatta Ahonen reads a book to children at the Tammi nursery in Helsinki, Finland.
Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Helsinki

It’s Wednesday morning, so toddlers in the Tammi nursery in Helsinki, Finland, are excited—their communal grandparent, or “kylämummi,” is here.

This classroom’s “kylämummi” is Marjatta Ahonen,  a 71-year old retired psychotherapist. She volunteers for the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare (MLL), Finland’s largest organization dedicated to child and family welfare. From 2006, MLL has run a program encouraging older people to volunteer as communal grandparents. They meet their communal “grandchildren” in schools, libraries, and other family-friendly spaces. The idea is to give lonely pensioners a purpose, and to give children who may live far away from their own grandparents a chance to forge a meaningful bond with an older person. There are 830 communal grandparents across Finland.

For Ahonen, it’s a source of joy to visit the Tammi nursery once a week, something she has done every week for the past eight years. She plays with the children, helps teachers manage lunch and nap time, and generally serves as a constant, loving presence for the 18 toddlers aged between two and five. A petite woman with curly blond hair and a reserved demeanor, Ahonen has a ready smile for anyone under three feet tall. She has two children of her own and no grandchildren, though you wouldn’t know it from watching her read a book to seven restless toddlers, all of whom are vying for the coveted spot on her lap. “It gives me a lot of joy to be here,” she says. “I feel that I’m needed and…I will continue to do it as long as I am able.”

“When she comes, the kids are like ‘wow,’” says Maileena Nieminen, the lead teacher at Tammi. “She comes, they are happy.”

Annabelle Timsit for Quartz
Marjatta serves lunch with lead teacher Maileena Nieminen. Today, the kids got to choose their meal, and they wanted fish sticks.

Finland’s communal grandparent program is part of a growing movement whose goal is to forge meaningful relationships across generational divides. But there is little evidence  so far to show  that these programs are successfully recreating family-like relationships, or that they are feasible and scalable answers to two of the thorniest challenges that rich countries face today: Aging societies and loneliness.

In the name of progress, Western societies have segregated the generations. Where extended families once lived and worked together, economic expansion after the industrial revolution (paywall) and the modern-day welfare system now keeps them apart. Children move to big cities in search of jobs and opportunity, leaving parents and grandparents behind—or in nursing homes. A recent survey of 2,000 adults in the US conducted by the online genealogy company Ancestry.com showed that a third of Americans can’t even name all of their grandparents. “I think it’s a terrible loss in our culture,” says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert in child development.

Research shows that young and old people need each other to thrive. “The needs and the assets of the generations fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” explains Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Encore, a nonprofit that matches retiring adults with companies in need of talent. “The old, as they move into the latter phases of life, are driven by a deep desire to be needed by the next generation and to nurture it; the young have a need to be nurtured,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal (paywall).

Urie Bronfenbrenner, co-founder of the Head Start program in the US, which provides early childhood education, health, nutrition services to poor children under age five and their families, reportedly had a simple way of putting it: “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”

“Biology flows downhill”

In the 1950s, a team of mental health workers, pediatricians, public health nurses, and social workers in Hawaii followed a group of 698 children from birth through age 40, in an attempt to understand what makes some children resilient in the face of adversity and others not. The Kauai Longitudinal Study (pdf) found that “children who succeeded against the odds had the opportunity to establish, early on, a close bond with at least one competent, emotionally stable person who was sensitive to their needs.” More often than not, this person was a grandparent, older sibling, aunt, or uncle.

Annabelle Timsit for Quartz
Marjatta reads the kids a book before their nap time. But these children are too excited to sleep, having fought a bitter battle to decide who would get to sit on her lap.

Evolutionary theory posits that grandparents pass human culture onto the next generation. Communal grandmother Marjatta Ahonen was born in 1948 in Ylistaro, in the Finnish countryside. Kids at the Tammi nursery in Helsinki are often curious about her childhood. They ask her what Christmas was like when she was growing up, and she tells them about how her family used to melt the ice off the Christmas trees they chopped down in the forest. She also tells them how as a kid, she used to go through the garden with her friends, looking for eggs that their chickens had laid the day before.

Sure, they could read about all of this in a book; but it’s not the same as hearing it from someone who lived it. “I share my life experience and help with those stories,” says Ahonen.

According to research by anthropologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah, the human race survived this long because grandmothers were around to feed and care for children, thus freeing up their daughters to have more babies, and pass on their “longevity-promoting genes,” as Lindsay Abrams put it in The Atlantic. The “grandmother hypothesis” helps explain why women survive past menopause, when they can no longer help perpetuate the species: Their grandchildren need them during their first few years of life, a period that is crucial to their development.

“If young people need adults who are irrationally crazy about them, as older people, we need to be irrationally crazy about the next generation.”

When children are very young, they need continuous back-and-forth interactions with loving adults around them to thrive. What some scientists call an “environment of relationships” helps kids develop the skills they need to be confident and happy, to do well in school, to get along with others and resolve conflicts, and to learn the difference between right and wrong.

While grandparents are good for kids, it’s also true that kids are good for grandparents. In the 1930s, the Harvard Study of Adult Development showed that the quality of people’s relationships can determine their physical and mental health. George Vaillant, one of the leaders of the study, wrote in his book, Aging well, that adults who invest in nurturing the next generation are more likely to be happy than those who do not. “Biology flows downhill,” Vaillant wrote.

Freedman, of Encore, the nonprofit that matches retirees with companies, says that intergenerational connections are key. “If young people need adults who are irrationally crazy about them, as older people, we need to be irrationally crazy about the next generation. It’s a central part of the human makeup, and one that we have, in many ways, abandoned in the modern world.”

“Clearing the market for love”

There’s no exact formula for the communal grandparent program, and that’s what makes it special: MLL knows that you can’t teach or fake love. Volunteers undergo a one-time, three-to-four hour training session. It introduces them to MLL’s values and principles, helps them plan out activities to do with the children, and explains why intergenerational relationships are important and why play matters to children’s development.

“Marjatta is here only for the children.”

Volunteers spend a set amount of time, usually a morning or an afternoon, with children every week, playing with them, reading to them, or doing activities with them, such as baking cookies or walking in the snow. At Tammi, Marjatta Ahonen accompanies the kids to an indoor gymnasium every second Wednesday. While the older kids play on gym mats, she keeps the younger and shyer ones company. “Everyone likes her, but maybe the little ones are more with her, because they need more help,” says the teacher Maileena Nieminen. “She knows—she sees who needs her.”

Unlike teachers and assistants, communal grandparents have time and undivided attention to give, which is exactly what curious toddlers need. They want nothing more than to ask how the bird they just saw hit a window got back up and flew away. They want to read the same book for the dozenth time and ask why the story ended the way it did. “She can sit down and be there and read the book from the beginning to the end,” says Nieminen about Ahonen. “I don’t like to stop something that I’m doing with the children, but we need to do it. Marjatta is here only for the children.”

“This program felt like it was clearing the market for love,” says Freedman. “At one level, this contact is developmentally stimulating: Hearing words and stories and music from adults is so important for the healthy development of young children. But I think at a deeper level, these children pick up a more secure sense of attachment and grow up feeling loved by being around a portfolio of adults who are investing in them, who are caring about them, who are being irrationally crazy about them.”

“All of us need at least one person to play that role, as Bronfenbrenner suggests, but I think we’re better off if we have a multitude.”

The evidence

There are no large-scale studies measuring the effect of communal grandparents. But assessments of other, similar programs that regularly bring old and young people together (pdf) have consistently shown benefits for the volunteers and the children. The older people feel a sense of purpose and don’t have to spend as much time alone; and the kids have one more adult around them who is invested in their success.

“I hope that he sees every day that he’s truly helping and making a difference.”

One of the things that sets us apart from our closest primate relatives is that the care of young children isn’t just left to family members; it’s also done by neighbors, friends, and even volunteers like the communal grandparents. These “alloparents,” a term popularized by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in her book Mother Nature, may have been crucial to the survival of the human race, and they’ve been proven to improve children’s health, socio-emotional, and behavioral outcomes.

Emma Herlin, a kindergarten teacher in Finland who studied communal grandparents for her PhD, says that whether this intergenerational program benefits kids and grandparents alike depends on the participants’ willingness to engage. She observed a communal grandfather, whom she called “tapsa-vaari,” or grandpa tapsa, in a daycare in southern Finland and interviewed seven of the children in his group, all between four and five years old. Herlin asked the children to draw pictures of grandpa tapsa and then reconstructed meaning from the drawings using a narrative method.

His visits, Herlin noticed, meant different things to different children. For some, they were an unremarkable part of the weekly schedule. For others, they were exciting and an opportunity to spend some time with a supportive adult. “It’s about the individuals,” she says. “So, a different place or a different volunteer, it might have a completely different story.”

Overall though, she said the communal grandfather was “truly helping and making a difference.”

Research shows that intergenerational programs are successful when they foster secure, respectful, equitable, and reciprocal relationships between the participants, and when they approach “learning” as a long-term process, not just a weekly benchmark. That means kids will learn best if their communal grandparent plays a game or reads a book with them, and does activities that are culturally relevant.

Recreating the village

Nearly a third of the 18 children who attend Tammi nursery live too far away from their grandparents to see them often. For them, Marjatta Ahonen may be the only older adult with whom they have a relationship. And for Ahonen, her time at the nursery may be the only regular time she spends with young children. They are not as close as family, she admits, “but very close. And it’s wonderful.”

Annabelle Timsit for Quartz
Joy.

Loneliness for older people is an increasingly common problem in Finland, partly because people now live much longer than before. The proportion of Finland’s population made up of people over the age of 65 will grow from 22.7% today to 27.2% by 2040. By 2070, it’s projected to be 33.1%. Older people are especially likely to report feeling lonely (a subjective feeling) or socially isolated (an objective metric). In Europe, more than 75 million adults (pdf) meet with family or friends once a month at most, and about 30 million adults report frequently feeling lonely.

“The old ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ that’s not just a political slogan, that’s what all the science tells you.”

Chronic loneliness and social isolation can be deadly: It increases adults’ risk of heart attack and stroke, depression, dementia, and premature mortality. But old people aren’t the only ones who report often feeling lonely. Surveys point to the fact that, in many rich countries, the two loneliest groups are the young and the old.

“Our institutions are very age-segregated,” says Gopnik of the University of California, and this can harm children too. “The old ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ that’s not just a political slogan, that’s what all the science tells you.” To raise a happy, healthy, and thriving human child, there needs to be a multitude of people around (paywall) to invest time and resources in their well-being. That sense of communal investment in child-rearing has “fallen by the wayside” in a post-Industrial world, she says, ceding way to “the default assumption that…the way caregiving should be done is one mother, sitting in a house in the suburbs somewhere, taking care of one or two children. And that’s not a good model for caregiving.”

There are hundreds of programs around the world bringing the young and the old together in the hopes that it may cure at least a little of what ails them both. Singapore is building eldercare and childcare facilities in the same spaces to “provide opportunities for intergenerational bonding.” The European Union runs a multi-country program called Together Old and Young (TOY), which promotes intergenerational learning. Last year, British prime minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness, with a focus on creating opportunities to bring people of all ages together so that “nobody should feel alone or be left with no one to turn to.”

In the US in the 1960s, Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., a reformer, presidential candidate, and brother-in-law to John F. Kennedy, created the Foster Grandparent program. It was meant to match older volunteers with children in need in their communities. Before Shriver died in 2011, Freedman of Encore was able to ask him if he thought the program worked. The answer was encouraging. “He said he was convinced that it did, and it worked for two reasons: It was simple, it was one-on-one, and it was human. It was all about relationships.”

“That is really, in a way, the essence of these efforts,” says Freedman. “They’re simple, they’re human, and they’re reproducing a fundamental part of the human experience, which is the grandparent-grandchild relationship.”

These programs may appear to be simple, but recreating something as fundamentally complex as the grandparent-grandchild relationship is hard. That’s one of the pitfalls of Finland’s communal grandparent programs, and any other program like it. It’s easy to just drop an elderly person into a kid-friendly space and leave it at that. But you’re not going to recreate “family-like” relationships by “just sort of parachuting in,” says Gopnik. For that, you need time, consistency, and effort.

“I’m convinced that the grandparent-grandchild relationship is one of the most important bonds in society and human history,” says Freedman, “and it can be reproduced in people who are not blood relatives in the traditional sense.”

Annabelle Timsit for Quartz
Communal grandmother Marjukka Hartikainen draws with a group of children at the International Family Café in Espoo.

The scene at the International Family Café in Espoo, a sprawling city that is part of greater Helsinki, shows just how difficult this can be. The family café is another program run by MLL to bring together new parents. A communal grandmother, Marjukka Hartikainen, volunteers there, but she mostly stays quiet, interacting with the seven energetic kids in the room once in a while to bring them a pen and paper to draw with, or to pick up a baby that has crawled too far away. The kids get bored quickly, and there is very little apparent depth to the exchange. It doesn’t help that different kids and parents come to the café every week, making it difficult to create lasting relationships.

“The only true cure for social isolation is a real relationship,” says Freedman. “Just having contact, as opposed to connexion, is probably not that valuable, significant, or enduring.”

Not a silver bullet

Finland is committed to reducing social isolation and loneliness among vulnerable populations. The municipality provides the space for many of MLL’s initiatives, from the family cafes to peer support groups, and through the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, develops and commissions research on social welfare programs. But there is still some way to go. “I wish we had more contacts with grandparents generally, more visits in the grandparents’ homes, or with lonely people who are old,” says Maileena Nieminen, the lead teacher at Tammi.

About a month ago, Finns celebrated National Grandparents’ Day. Nieminen invited all of the children’s grandparents to come to the nursery for coffee and a singalong. Then, she took them to visit her father, who lives close by and is often lonely. Until a few years ago, these kinds of visits were a more regular occurrence. One morning every month, Nieminen would take the kids to  a retirement home next to the nursery to sing and play with people there. Then the retirement home closed down.

One of MLL’s biggest challenges is finding enough funding and volunteers to keep these types of programs going. Last year, it shut down a two-year initiative called “terhokerho,” which had older and younger people meeting and playing games together. Most of MLL’s yearly budget of €9 million ($9.9 million) is allocated by a government agency through the national lottery fund, or “veikkaus.” But there isn’t enough money to expand nationwide.

The communal grandparent experiment shows that it is possible to reimagine relationships between the old and the young, in a society that will soon have more over-65s than under-14s.  And in the meantime, hundreds of communal grandparents continue their labor of love across Finland.

Read more from our series on Rewiring Childhood. This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation

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