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Learning From Grandparents With Disabilities

How Grandchildren Can Benefit

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Grandchidren can help disabled grandparents by doing small tasks such as turning on lights.

Grandchildren can learn early to do small tasks to help grandparents.

Photo © Center for Universal Design

Grandparents with disabilities sometimes have regrets about the things they can no longer do with their grandchildren. They can, however, take comfort in the fact that they are educating their grandchildren about dealing with those who are differently abled.

Before and After

The relationship between disabled grandparents and their grandchildren is affected by the onset of the disability. Harvey Wells, who has end stage renal disease, had grandchildren before his illness required dialysis. Sometimes children in this situation require extra reassurance. “I just let them know that I’m doing the best I can to take care of myself,” Wells said.

Other grandchildren have never known their grandparents as completely healthy individuals. Bob O’Neill suffered a stroke when his grandson Robbie was only months old. Although Robbie adjusted to his grandfather’s limitations, learning early to approach him on his unaffected right side, O’Neill wanted his grandson to know that he had not always been disabled. He showed Robbie movies and videos made before his stroke. “He seemed very happy to know and asked to see some of them over again,” O’Neill said, “especially the ones showing me very animated and moving around.”

A more typical situation is that grandchildren see their grandparents gradually become less able. “My grandchildren have always known me with limitations,” said Sylvia Peltier, who suffers with rheumatoid arthritis. “As the years went by, they watched as I was less able to provide for myself. The kids are amazing, though. They take it all in stride.”

Answering Questions

Children are curious, and grandchildren are no exception. Most grandparents with disabilities sooner or later will face questions from their grandchildren. Shelley Dann, who has had both legs amputated, has fielded numerous questions from her four grandchildren. “I answer each question honestly, even going into detail about the amputation and how it was done.” Dann has also had a colostomy. “Believe me, they had a lot of questions about that,” Dann said. “As long as I am honest and tell them exactly how things were done and why, then as they grow up, at least they have the proper information.”

Benefits for Grandchildren

Many disabled grandparents believe that their grandchildren may be growing up a little wiser and more compassionate because of their experience with disability. “They learn to look beyond a person’s color, age or ability and to realize that it is what’s inside of people that really matters,” Peltier said. O’Neill agrees that his grandson Robbie has benefited in a similar way. “He’s a very sociable boy,” O’Neill said, describing how Robbie loves to talk to the people they meet while he and his grandpa are riding on O’Neill’s scooter. Dann recounts an occasion when she was being stared at by a bystander. Dann’s granddaughter approached the woman and let her know that, if she had questions, she should ask them rather than staring.

Observing a grandparent dealing with physical limitations may also teach valuable lessons about overcoming adversity. "I think my disability has taught my grandchildren that life may be difficult at times," Peltier said, "but with a little faith and courage, they can do or be anything they wish."

Grandparents can be powerful role models for grandchildren. Knowing a grandparent with a disability just adds an extra dimension. “I read once that we should live our lives like we’re reading the story of our life to our grandchildren,” Wells said. “I’m constantly reminded of how my grandmother dealt with her life and how I draw my strength from what I learned from her.”

Learn about positive practices for grandparents with disabilities and ways differently abled grandparents can have fun with grandchildren.

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