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Alumni

Grandparenting Guide

July-August 2015

Olivia Gentile

Olivia Gentile

Photograph Courtesy of Deborah Copaken

Family pictures show writer Olivia Gentile with her Boston grandmother and older sister

Family pictures show writer Olivia Gentile with her Boston grandmother and older sister

Photograph courtesy of Olivia Gentile

Her grandparents from Washington, D.C.

Her grandparents from Washington, D.C.

Photograph courtesy of Olivia Gentile

Olivia Gentile ’96 launched The Grandparent Effect (http://grandparenteffect.com) this past January, but as a child, she wasn’t particularly close with her own grandparents. She saw them for special occasions and holidays, but “I think they were kind of enjoying retirement and didn’t really want to hang out with screaming kids,” she says of the couple who lived nearby in Washington, D.C. Once at Harvard, though, Gentile often saw her other grandmother, who lived in Boston, and that flourishing relationship improved her ties to her Washington grandparents. “We discovered we had a ton in common and loved each other’s company,” she explains. “Once I was an adult and I could talk about politics, go to museums, and meet them on their level, we had a ton of fun together.”

The newfound friendships brought other rewards. “I had a hard time in some of my college years and twenties, and my grandparents were there as a safety net,” she adds. Her last grandparent passed away when Gentile was 36, and “That’s when I started thinking about what an amazing role they played in my life, and my young adulthood,” she recalls. The former social studies concentrator then became curious about how her relationship with her grandparents compared to the current role of grandparents in other American families.

After some initial research, she “started to realize that there’s been a sociological shift in the grandparent role since I was growing up”: they are living longer, healthier, and wealthier lives in a change that appears to transcend socioeconomics, race, and ethnicity. In 2012, she decided to explore this change by interviewing grandparents and their families, and began by visiting senior centers around New York City. She quickly realized that patrons there were more often great-grandparents. “Your average sixty-something or seventy-something grandparent isn’t hanging out at a senior center,” Gentile explains. “They’re still working, or a lot of them are babysitting or hanging out. They have their own networks.” Now her website lists common misconceptions she thinks it is “time to trash,” such as the idea that all grandparents are “old” (in fact, the median age at which Americans welcome a grandchild is 50), and the belief that grandparents are often financially dependent on their children (according to MetLife, 62 percent of American grandparents help to support their grandchildren).

Starting a website occurred to Gentile as she reached out to nonprofits in order to expand and diversify her network of interviewees; the site would offer a way to reach families all across the country, and for them to contact her to share their stories. After compiling about 100 interviews, she launched.

Despite the success of her first book, Life List (2009), Gentile chose to use the Internet to share her research. “I don’t think the media as a whole is doing a great job of covering the ‘Rise of the Grandparent,’ as I call it,” she explains. With the website (now augmented by a Facebook page, Twitter account, and monthly e-mail newsletter), she says, “I have this opportunity to hunker down and cover this story the way I want to cover it. I felt like I had a really good scoop, and I wanted to take advantage of it in a way that you can’t when you have a book that takes forever.” The website is time-consuming enough: Gentile finds that she spends between 40 and 50 hours a week writing posts, fact-checking, updating interviews, attending conferences, and tweaking the design. 

She estimates that her readership is about 75 percent grandparents and 25 percent parents. Becoming a parent herself (with husband and fellow writer Andy Borowitz ’80) has helped her better understand the perspectives of the grandparents who read and contribute to the site. “I can relate to a lot of the grandparents I interview, who also get what’s great about kids,” she says. “It made me realize how having a daughter has completely re-oriented my life, with family at the center of it.”

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