Edye was the first to leave. In her late 50s, she sold her home, packed her belongings and her cats, and left her close circle of friends to pursue a relationship and a job three states away from those who love her most. My inelegant and somewhat selfish response was, "Seriously? In late middle age you're going to LEAVE ME AND START ALL OVER?"
Apparently her answer was "yes," because she lives in Chicago, and I live near Philadelphia. She owns a house that she renovated from the floorboards up, and she has meaningful work she loves. It's been a decade since the big move, so it's almost time for me to accept the fact that this could be a permanent situation. And I would accept it, if it weren't for another fact ... the fact that she now has a grandson on the East Coast. She's talking about how nice it would be to live near him. Grandchildren trump everything else, even best friends.
I know this because Elayne moved next. She moved to California permanently in order to enjoy her grandchildren's formative years. After managing a bicoastal relationship with the kids for nine years, she simply could not bear the distance any longer. So off she went, leaving me bereft and confused.
"I suddenly realized I have very few years to spend with the kids before they become teenagers," she explained to me one day as I sat in her kitchen crying into my tea. "When that day comes, they will prefer to spend time with their friends and I will become irrelevant."
She was right. The frequency of her grandchildren's visits had dwindled considerably over the years as the kids became engaged in school and neighborhood activities.
Gathering the fragments and memories of one's entire adult life to begin anew in an unfamiliar place is not on most middle-agers' to-do lists. But those lists were most likely compiled before we thought about grandchildren, and today baby boomer grandparents are moving in droves.
A recent AARP study revealed that 80 percent of adults 45 and older believe it is important to live near their children and grandchildren.
Nancy and Harm Radcliffe are among this number. After spending much of their adult lives living abroad, they returned to the United States and established a happy home in Bethesda, Maryland. In the 13 years they resided in Bethesda they made lifelong friends, became very involved in their church, and looked forward to spending their retirement years there.
Their plans were discarded in the blink of an eye when their daughter and son-in-law called from Philadelphia and hinted that they could use some help with their 7-year-old special needs son and his two siblings.
For Nancy, the decision was a no-brainer. She said, "As soon as I was off the phone, I asked myself, 'Why am I here in Maryland when my daughter and three kids need me in Philadelphia?'"
Convincing her husband, Harm, to leave the Washington, DC area, was a bit challenging. He was retired and had fashioned a contented life for himself in Bethesda. Reluctantly, he agreed to the move and now says he has no regrets.
For the first two months the Radcliffes babysat 12 hours a day, five days a week. Their daughter, Laurel, works fulltime as a doctor. Today the Radcliffes spend three days a week engaged with their grandchildren. They like to give each child one full day alone with them.
Friends have been plentiful in their new neighborhood. "I don't wait for people to come to me," Nancy said. "I extend invitations to the neighbors. You have to be proactive with regard to making new friends."
Sally Fedorchek followed her grandchild from Yardley, Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas when her son-in-law's job took him there. It was a move she never expected to make, and it happened so quickly that she and her husband had little time to find a house.
"We found something reasonable. It's not the perfect house, but the longer I'm in it, the more I like it," she said. "At first it felt like this was just an extended visit. I had to keep reminding myself that I'm here permanently. I miss my friends back home, but not as much as I missed the kids when I was living in Yardley. I'm not worried about a new life. So far the kids have included us in everything. I'm well aware that won't last and I've already made a list of activities I'd like to try."
We boomers encouraged our kids to be independent. In many cases we sent them to college far from home. Our children have traveled more than we ever did at their age. Cellphones, Skype and email have made it possible for them to feel close to us even when they live a continent or two away. Sometimes the price we pay for the independence we granted our children is the disappointment we feel when they decide to leave the homestead for other adventures. If we want major roles rather than cameo appearances in our grandchildren's lives, it becomes our burden to make that happen. Some of us choose to move. Others practically live on airplanes and manage their lives around their frequent flyer miles.
Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist and author of 13 books about family life, asks grandparents to consider the following questions before making the big move:
I am no longer confused by Elayne's move. Still sad, but not confused. I know exactly why she did it. At the moment, I have a 6-month-old granddaughter and a one-month lease on an apartment in California. We'll see how it goes.