Monday, February 19, 2024


The writer with her grandchildren (clockwise from left) Max, Allie, Hana, Reiya and baby Ryder, taken close to a decade ago. - Photos: LILY FU

My youngest grandchild turned 10 last month. Celebrating his birthday made me reflect on how quickly the years have rolled by, and how fast the children have grown. My eldest grandchild will be 24 this August.

Has it been that long ago that I cradled this young man as a newborn in my arms and looked after him full time while his parents were out busy working till late at night on their fledgling company?

With multi-generational families no longer living under one roof, the role of grandparents has taken on renewed significance. What would busy working young parents do without grandmas (and grandpas) stepping in to help with the little ones? Well, there’s always the daycare centres or a nanny/domestic helper to look after them. But nothing compares to having one’s own blood and kin care for the children.

As a hands-on grandmother, delighting in caring for the little ones, I was quite surprised when I discovered not all my senior friends shared the same views on the subject of grandparenting.

They felt they had paid their dues and done their turn as parents. It’s time their adult children did theirs, they said.

“No more changing diapers and dealing with toddler tantrums for me. At my age, it’s too stressful. Sure, if there’s an emergency, I’ll be there. I don’t mind playing with my grandchildren or visiting them, but hands-on babysitting? No, thank you.”

Drawing a line

There are many who share the same sentiments.

“My husband and I have eight grandchildren from our three children. Being on call to babysit for all of them leaves us with little time for our own activities.”

“Our son leaves his two-year-old and four-year-old at our house before he goes to work. By the time he picks up the children after work at 7pm, my husband and I are exhausted. Sometimes when my son has a lot of work at the office, he comes as late as 9pm.”

“My husband is 72, and I’m 68. Physically, we can’t keep up with our hyperactive grandsons. Besides, I have high blood pressure.”

“My daughter-in-law and I don’t see eye-to-eye on how to bring up the children, especially when it comes to discipline, food and education. This has caused some tension in our relationship.”

Yes, looking after boisterous little children can be exhausting for grandparents. I know of grandparents whose daily routine involves preparing the children for school, driving them there and picking them up later for tuition or co-curricular activities. They have to make sure the children do their homework, take their meals and set strict rules on video games. This leaves them unable to enjoy social activities with their friends or go on trips with them.

All this can be very tiring. It can be hard to say no when your daughter calls and asks, “Mum, can you come over and babysit this weekend? I’ll be out of town on a business trip.”

Learn to say “No” if there are other options available. If you keep offering to help out all the time, you may soon feel overwhelmed. That is when babysitting and childcare becomes a pressure, and no longer a pleasure.

As a hands-on grandmother, delighting in caring for the little ones, the writer was quite surprised when she realised not all her senior friends shared the same views on the subject of grandparenting.

Family dynamics

Understanding and managing family dynamics play an important role when it comes to grandparenting. Young married couples have to deal with two sets of grandparents for their children – their own parents and their in-laws. Friction can sometimes arise when grandparents-in-law live in another town and do not get to be with their grandchildren often.

There is this feeling that their grandchildren are not as close to them as they are to the other set of grandparents who get to care for them daily. They try to compensate by over-indulging the children, buying them expensive toys and clothes to win over their affection.

There is also the huge difference in opinion on how the children should be raised. Young mothers feel grandparents are old-fashioned and conservative in their thinking. A case in point: when the grandchild is sick, the grandparents will offer home remedies as being more effective than the doctor’s prescription medicine. They are also aghast at how much freedom and independence young parents give their children.

Baby boomer grandparents learned childcare from their parents and from reading books e.g. Dr Benjamin Spock’s seminal Baby and Child Care. Young parents today prefer to go online to learn from child psychologists the latest and best parenting practices. A tip to grandparents to avoid friction – when offering well-meaning advice, don’t start with ‘In my time...’ or ‘In those days...’

This often gives rise to arguments resulting in young mothers regarding the grandparents as meddlesome and outdated.

The young father finds himself in an awkward caught-in-the-middle situation between the two most important women in his life. When grandparents know when to offer well-meaning advice, and when to “zip it”, there can be a happy compromise in the mother and daughter-in-law relationship. Also, when husband and wife have a disagreement over the children, grandparents should not interfere unless approached.

Stay on the sidelines

When there is harmony at home, this creates the ideal home environment for the little ones to grow up in.

It is interesting to study the implications of the changes in demographics. Longevity means more parents can see themselves becoming great grandparents. Four-generation families are no longer rare today. On the flip side, more young people are delaying marriage, and delaying parenthood. Which means not every parent will get to be a grandparent in his lifetime.

On a related note, have you ever wondered why women live longer than men, and why women go through menopause? Could it be that the extra menopausal years are meant for older women to shift their role from child-bearing to caring for the little ones and for the elderly in the family? Well, that makes sense.

Food for thought

I believe I speak for my friends who are grandmas when I say our grandchildren are a source of joy, fun and pride. They grow up so fast. Before you know it, they are preteens, and then full-fledged teenagers. That’s why the fleeting moments spent with my grandchildren are precious.

When they start having their own friends and activities, they won’t have as much time to spend with us. That’s why I value each moment I have with them now. My grandchildren keep me feeling young with their unconditional love and boundless energy.

I’ll be 76 this year. God willing, I want to be around to see all my grandchildren do well and find their purpose in life. For this to happen, I will have to look after myself and be responsible for my health. With long life and good health, I will still be around, not to look after my great grandchildren in my old age, but to just be there for them and to see them growing up well. That’s the circle of life.

Lily Fu is a gerontologist who advocates for seniors. She is founder of SeniorsAloud, an online platform for seniors to get connected and enjoy social activities for ageing well.

(The above article was first published in The Star under the column 'Grey Matters'. It can be accessed at this link:


Dr Pola (far left) and friends are the few exceptions to the rule of female-dominated senior groups. — DR POLA SINGH

Recently The Star carried an article titled Where are the women?, about the poor representation of women in the cabinet and how their presence is essential for better responsiveness to citizens’ needs.

After all, women make up almost half of our population.

The title got me thinking along a similar vein: “Where are the men?”

This was in reference to the lack of male participation in social activities for older adults. In practically every group activity organised by senior citizens associations or communities, the turnout is 90%-100% women. It seems the women are unable to persuade their husbands to join them for the various activities. Why the reluctance?

Men, with their muscles and bigger body size, are the stronger sex physically. But when it comes to health, they are the weaker sex compared to women. The statistics confirm this. Worldwide, women outlive men by at least five years. In Russia, it is more than 10 years! That is a lot of extra years of living.

In Malaysia, the life expectancy of women is 77.36 years and for men it is 72.66 years. That is a difference of nearly five years. A lot can be achieved during those extra years which can be spent with the family. Five extra years to enjoy being alive. No one wants to go off before their time. This is the longevity bonus made possible by medicine, science and technology. However, women seem to be the main beneficiary, not men.

One reason to explain this disparity in life expectancy is biological. Women have two X chromosomes and men have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. The estrogen in women gives them better protection against diseases and may explain why they have a stronger immune system than men.

While we can’t change our genes, we can definitely change our lifestyle habits to live longer and in relatively good health. Women are born into their traditional role as caregivers, starting with caring for their family as mothers, daughters and wives. They look after their children, take care of their elderly parents and keep an eye on their husband’s health. This hands-on carer experience explains why women are more concerned about their health than men.

They go for health checks and practise healthy habits. Also, they have gone through child-bearing and childbirth, and are better at dealing with pain. In addition, women generally have fewer unhealthy habits than men. They don’t smoke or drink excessively, and they don’t take unnecessary risks.

The two genders have different approaches to retirement. Women welcome this period as an opportunity to be free to go out, enjoy social activities and focus on improving their health. What do retired men do? Well, mostly they hang out with their buddies to drink, talk about politics, play golf or watch football on TV. Or they remain at home doing nothing much, get bored and put on weight.Why the difference?

Having observed this difference between men and women in the senior communities I have been a part of for the past 20 years, I have to conclude it is true that men in general do not care about their health to the same extent as women. Just talk to their wives. They will tell you almost in exasperation, maybe even desperation, about their futile attempts to get their husbands to go for health checks.

Given that men are more prone to stress, anger and violence, they are at higher risk of stroke and heart disease. Men need to learn self-control and anger management or suffer the consequences.

They are reluctant to see the doctor or the dentist for regular checkups. They are less able to handle health issues than women. Referred to as having the “ostrich mentality”, men tend to be in denial mode when health issues crop up. Even when they experience early signs of problems with their urination, they hesitate to go for a checkup. The end result – prostate cancer that could have been avoided had they sought an early diagnosis.

Men want to preserve that masculine image even as they age.

This is evident in their preference for meat at every meal, especially red meat, than for healthier food choices like vegetables and whole grains. This need to uphold their masculinity is extended to their indifference to joining activities such as dancing, singing and painting.

No wonder courses for seniors offered by University of the Third Age (U3A), Malaysia, see more women signing up than men, year after year.

Men find women’s social activities too “soft”. No oomph, so I was told. To attract them to join the short courses at U3A, and make new friends, more “men’s courses” were offered, for example, Entrepreneurship, Digital Technologies and DIY, the latter conducted by the Kaki DIY founder himself. Still, the participants for the courses remain predominantly female.

Indeed, it has become a challenge to recruit men for social activities and voluntary community service.

Social networks

According to an article published by Harvard Medical School - “Mars vs Venus: The gender gap in health”, men lack social networks and support. Women find it easy to strike up conversations and make friends. Men, on the other hand, tend to shy away from social interaction. They feel a sense of awkwardness and discomfort in the company of strangers. They need to be aware that prolonged social isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental issues.

Nursing homes bear testimony to women living longer than men. The residents at these homes and in many senior living facilities are overwhelmingly women. Some have never married, but the majority are widows who have outlived their husbands, sometimes by as many as 10 to 20 years! On a recent trip to Singapore, I met with the president of Wicare, a support group created by widows for widows and the fatherless. The group has been around since 1993 and currently has more than 700 widow members!

It is not that men are unaware of the health risks they are facing when they make poor lifestyle choices such as avoiding health checks and minimising their health issues. They are aware but are reluctant to do anything about it. Only they know the reason. I may be making generalisations and assumptions here, but the bottom line is this – unless our men take better care of their health, we may see a similar Wicare set up here for the widows they leave behind.

Men like Dr Pola Singh can lead the way. At age 74, he is a example of good health and vitality. He hikes and exercises daily, watches what he eats, has an extensive network of friends, does charity, keeps himself mentally active by writing, and has a positive outlook on life. Let’s hope we see more men doing the same. Never too late. Never too early. Just get started. We love our men – our husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and uncles. We want our men to be with us for as long as possible. Can we get their cooperation on this?

Lily Fu is a gerontologist who advocates for seniors. She is founder of Seniors-Aloud, an online platform for seniors to get connected and enjoy social activities for ageing well.

(The artile was first published in the Star under the column 'Grey Matters'. It can be accessed at )