Between fiction and reality - The intergenerational relationship between great-grandparents and great-grandchildren

  • Emily Schuler
  • Cristina Maria de Souza Brito Dias


The phenomenon of human aging has been gaining more prominence in the media and research, as it is an emerging reality that presents the need for a closer look. According to the United Nations (2018), there are around 700 million people over 60 years of age in the world and it is expected to reach two billion by 2050. Brazil also follows this worldwide trend of population aging, reaching to surpass the 30 million elderly mark in the country (IBGE, 2017). According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE, 2017), the elderly population has increased by 18% over the past five years, becoming increasingly a representative age group in Brazil.

Due to these new parameters of longevity, combined with lower fertility rates, there are increasing vertical or intergenerational family structures, which show the need for further investigation of intergenerational relationships. According to studies carried out in Germany (Grünheid & Scharein, 2011), grandparents enjoy about 30 years of living with their grandchildren, thus opening the possibility of seeing the birth of their great-grandchildren and thus become great-grandparents. In this sense, this study about the great-grandparents figure is justified due to its intergenerational importance that constitutes something to be built for Family Psychology, as it is a growing social reality, however, still subject to little investigation.

According to the literature, the role played by great-grandparents in the family consists of tasks such as telling stories and anecdotes, giving gifts, taking care of great-grandchildren, going out with them, performing leisure activities, guiding and praying for them, among others. Mahne, Klaus, and Engstler (2018) raise the possibility that the relationship of great-grandparents with great-grandchildren becomes increasingly similar to that of grandparents and grandchildren, and that of grandparents and grandchildren approaches the relationship between parents and children. In addition, it can be said that great-grandparents often offer emotional and financial support to go beyond their own generation and it is through these behaviors that family values are transmitted. In addition, an important feature highlighted by Rabinovich, Azambuja and Moreira (2014) is that in the perspective of their great-grandchildren and came to the conclusion that great-grandparents contribute richly to the daily life of the family. Great-grandparents bring the child closer to the notion of finitude, since they appear even older than their grandparents. Children may experience a change of position from grandchildren to great-grandchildren and not confuse the generational subsystems of grandparents and great-grandparents.

Despite advances in research on intergenerational relations, there are still few studies focusing on the generation of great-grandparents (Even-Zohar & Garby, 2016; Rabinovich, Azambuja & Moreira, 2014; Vicente & Souza, 2012), which justifies the present study. 


Therefore, the general objective of this research was to understand how the relationship between great-grandparents and their great-grandchildren is characterized, more specifically it was sought: to identify the activities performed by great-grandparents with their great-grandchildren; understand intergenerational relations between great-grandparents and great-grandchildren; and analyze the meaning of being and having great-grandparents.

Due to the proposed objectives, a qualitative research was chosen to enable us to better understand phenomena and relationships (Minayo, 2004). Regarding the criterion of choice of participants, a purposive sample was used (Turato, 2003). Contributing participants in this research were five great-grandparents (three great-grandmothers and two great-grandfathers), aged 74 to 97 years; five great-grandchildren (one great-granddaughter and four great-grandsons), aged between 7 and 10 years. Participants were identified with fictitious names, and names with the same initials are great-grandparents and great-grandchildren of the same family.

A semi-structured interview with two scripts was used, one for great-grandparents and one for great-grandchildren addressing topics such as activities performed together, relationship characteristics, as well as what it means to be great-grandparents; in addition to a questionnaire with the participants' sociodemographic data.

To illustrate the theme was also made reading and analysis of children's books consisting of four books that deal with the figure of great-grandparents, which were found in virtual book tallows. The titles were obtained by searching the very homepage of the virtual bookstore for the word “great-grandparents”. The year of publication of these works ranged from 2005 to 2018, with all four books written in Portuguese and published in Brazil. Rodrigues, Oliveira, Rubac and Tavares (2007) explain that children's storybooks feature textual material that contains content regarding how certain figures are viewed. The data collected, either through the interview or textual material of children's books, were analyzed according to the Thematic Content Analysis technique, and permitted a triangulation of the data.

It can be confirmed in this research, corroborating with the literature consulted, that the role of great-grandparents is involved in multiple intergenerational relationships, since they play three intergenerational roles at the same time: parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The methodology with interviews with both generations was important to understand intergenerational nuances. In addition, the children's books contributed to observe the relationship of great-grandparents and great-grandchildren from fiction, revealing various aspects also present in the participants' speeches. Although they bring the stories to great-grandparents' legacy aspects, the stories also show the conviviality of the two generations filled with great affection. These books highlight the importance of working with old age themes with children in order to reduce possible prejudices, besides contributing to a society that gives voice and respect to all ages.

However, it should be noted that this topic has not been exhausted. The scarcity of literature in Brazil reflects this need for research on the generation of great-grandparents. In addition, the need for a closer look at society for this elder population is emphasized to create new public policies that include this generation, as well as psychological support in cases where conflicts are not resolved or cause suffering.