Great-Grandparents and Their Unique Role in the Family

Published April 1, 2021
Young woman pushing senior man in wheelchair

As children, great grandparents often seem like these larger-than-life figures, the folkloric heroes in tales of a time that has long since passed. If you're lucky enough to have great grandparents that live into your adulthood, you get the rare opportunity to know them as the complex people that they are; and, if you're a great grandparent, you're probably spending all of your time making sure to connect with your little ones. While their time may be shorter than others, it's important to remember the important role that great grandparents play in your family and the ways that you can help keep them involved.

What Are Great Grandparents Exactly?

There are quite a lot of people who've never known their great grandparents, and you might be one of them wondering exactly who you would've called your great grandmother or great grandfather. Most people have eight great grandparents, four on each of your parent's sides. In terms of genealogy, there are three generations between you and your great grandparents.

The Role Great Grandparents Play in Modern Families

Great grandparents are vital to the makeup of the modern family structure, particularly for those who live in multigenerational households. Their many years have gifted them with a unique perspective on the world, as well as imparted to them the best tips and tricks for how to navigate the tribulations of life. Here's just a few of the many ways that your great grandparents give back to your family every day.


Although great grandparents aren't always physically fit enough to be the caregiver to the younger generations in your family, they still take responsibility for their grandchildren and great grandchildren's care through other means. Whether it's by always having their favorite snack around or making sure to always give them a parting hug before they go, great grandparents provide an important reminder of both the obvious and subtle ways you can show your love to those you cherish.

Grandson studying grandfather's face through magnifying glass

History Keepers

One of the biggest tragedies that can befall any family is not knowing where they came from. Something as simple as learning about your great grandparents' favorite summertime activities and their experiences with their grandparents helps you keep your ancestral connections alive. Given that only one or two generations of your family have had access to technology that lets them document their everyday life, it's vital that you recognize the knowledge your great grandparents have about your family's past. So, make sure to ask them about anything and everything that they can remember, and either write it down or use a tool like the Multi-Generational Guided Diary for Great Grandparents to help guide your conversation; the future you will thank the current you for your history keeping one day.

Multi generation family in yard

Jack of All Trades

While age is just a number, the more years on your life means the more chances you've had to perfect a hobby, trade, or skill. The stereotypical great grandmother, for example, will have the best recipes in town, while the stereotypical great grandfather will know the easiest way to fillet a fish. Although your great grandparents may not have these niche skills, they've definitely amassed a lifetime worth of shortcuts that you and your family need to learn before they're gone.

Women preparing food in kitchen

Medical Models

Great grandparents also serve as important pieces of your medical profile, and knowing any genetic ailments that they've suffered from can help you and your doctor better prepare yourself for any potential illnesses. This can manifest in something as simple as having mammograms earlier than recommended; and considering early detection of most diseases significantly increases their survival rates, having a cheat sheet for your potential genetic predispositions is an incredibly beneficial thing that some people don't have access to. Unfortunately, this only pertains to your biological great grandparents; so if you're adopted, these medical characteristics wouldn't have passed down onto you.

Family watching a digital tablet together

Your Role in Your Great Grandparents' Lives

In just the same capacity that your great grandparents can be unconditionally supportive of you and all of your accomplishments, so too can you bolster their feelings of importance. One social study examining 103 different great grandparents found that making great grandparents feel "meaning[ful] and?important to keeping the family together" helped "increase?the motivation for (great grandparents to make) a greater personal investment in the role." Simply put, people are constantly craving the need to feel wanted and have a purpose, and part of anyone's job as a great grandchild is to ensure your great grandparents are feeling this intergenerational usefulness from you. So, make sure you visit them, sit with them, and invest some of your time in listening to that story you've heard seven times already, because for every time that they held your hand when you were small, they deserve their hand to be held as well.

Multi-generation family relaxing on retaining wall

The Miracles of Having a Multi-Generational Family

While it's less and less miraculous to get to spend many years with your great grandparents, there still remains an opportunity to not waste the time you have with them. Especially if you're younger, it's important to go ahead and recognize that your great grandparents offer your family unit so much more than you can imagine, and if you take the time to get to know them as the beautiful and flawed people they are, you'll see that they never stop giving. And maybe one day you'll find that you don't stop either.

Great-Grandparents and Their Unique Role in the Family