Older Men as Grandfathers – Why are they invisible?

Judith A. Davey


Grandfathers are “peripheral, distant, or have limited involvement with their grandchildren, usually offering only economic and instrumental support”. [1]

My interest in older people as grandparents goes back a long way. When the New Zealand Families Commission was in its heyday, I worked on an issues paper on older people in families. Then in 2005 came a New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing report – Grandfathers – Their Changing Family Roles and Contributions. [2]

The report highlighted the invisibility of older men as grandfathers and the lack of research about them. I made several applications to the Marsden Fund on the topic, each time dressing them up in different ways, trying to appeal to the funders – as a neglected aspect of family research; varied cultural expressions; as an exploration of masculinities. All without success.

So when I was asked to contribute a chapter to the “first” book on grandfathers, organised through the University of Oxford, UK, I jumped at the chance. But when I thought about the lack of relevant research in New Zealand, it came to me that a chapter on Maori grandfathers could be a useful addition to the book. I found an excellent Maori co-author in Dr. Cherryl Smith, Director of Te Atawhai O Te Ao: Independent Máori Research Institute for Environment and Health, in Whanganui. Cherryl had previously written a report for the Health Research Council on Maori grandparents raising mokopuna and had helped to write the Families Commission report on Maori grandparents. It was a happy and productive collaboration but a lot of work to piece together scraps of information from local literature, supplemented by discussions with Maori grandfathers.

In this blog I examine the “invisibility” of grandfathers and in a second I will summarise what we found about Maori grandfathers, their role and how it is changing.

The Roles of Grandparents [3]
What is the role of grandparents? There are no training opportunities or courses in grandparenting that I have heard of. Grandparents must construct the role for themselves. They can be ‘family watchdogs’ providing help, support and protection if needed; they can maintain the identity and continuity of the family; be an anchor of stability in transitions and difficult times; and arbitrate in intergenerational relationships.

Research on grandparents, as individuals and part of families, has concentrated almost exclusively on grandmothers. Thus most of what we know is based on women’s experiences. One exception was Neugarten and Weinstein’s typology of grandparenting styles, which measured differences between grandmothers and grandfathers [4]. This, now classic, study depicts grandfathers as more likely to be formal and distant in their behaviour towards their grandchildren, and grandmothers more nurturing and informal.

Other studies found that grandmothers expressed higher levels of satisfaction with their roles than grandfathers. Perhaps this reflects continuity in the grandmother’s role from earlier family experiences of childcare and housework – stereotypical female competencies. Gendered responsibilities have led to grandmothers having more contact with their grandchildren, although this may be changing as family relationships become more informal. The idea of expressive fatherhood – fathers becoming more nurturing towards their children – is relatively recent.

While some interest in grandparenthood has been shown by the voluntary and public sectors [5], there is little academic literature on the topic in New Zealand and what there is reflects international findings. Another gendered aspect of the grandparent role, noted by Missen, is that women often act as proxy or ‘fictive’ grandmothers to children who are not their kin [6]. However, older men’s contact with children outside the family structure (and sometimes even with it) is constrained by concerns about vulnerability to accusations of sexual abuse, which may constrain how they relate to children in general.

An emerging issue for grandparents, in New Zealand as well as overseas, is the increasing number of grandparents with primary responsibility for raising grandchildren, where parents are unwilling/unable do so. About three years ago I posted two blogs about on the subject [7].

So why invisible?
Older men in general have been neglected in social science research. If male identity is firmly attached to the paid worker and provider roles then, in retirement and old age, men may indeed become ‘invisible’. Differences in male and female life expectancies are not the only factors, as grandparenthood can begin in mid-life. Census figures show that the median age of becoming a grandparent for the first time in New Zealand is 53 for grandmothers and 56 for grandfathers. Perhaps as the baby boom generation moves into later life more attention will be applied to the important roles that older men can play in families and in society.


[1] Waldrop, D. P., Weber, J. A., Herald, S. L., Pruett, J., Cooper, K .and Juozapavicius, K. 1999. Wisdom and life experience: how grandfathers mentor their grandchildren. Journal of Aging and Identity, 4(1): 33-46.
[2] Davey, Judith and Wilton, Virginia (2005) Grandfathers – Their Changing Family Roles and Contributions. New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing report for the Families Commission.
[3] Ibid
[4] Neugarten, B. and Weinstein, K. (1964) The changing American grandparent. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 26:199-204.
[5] In the mid 1990s, Age Concern called for research on the roles of grandparents. The 1997 Prime Ministerial Taskforce on Positive Ageing saw grandparenting as one of the key societal investments for the future.  
[6] Missen, S. 2002. ‘Confidants, negotiators, and stress buffers’: New Zealand grandparents talk about grandparenthood. MA Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.
[7] One asked whether this was a cultural norm or a social problem. The second I looked at the impacts which kinship care had on children and their grandparents. See the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust web site www.grg.org.nz for more information about their work and recent research.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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