A fitness instructor, personal trainer and choreographer, Leslie Fhima is in the business of raising heart rates.
But it’s her two grandchildren who make her own heart beat faster.
“They are the loves of my life,” said Fhima, 61, of Minneapolis. “I’m all about creating memories and traditions for them. I bring a lot to their lives and they make my every day happier.”
Fhima sees her 3-year-old granddaughter and 6-year-old grandson three times a week, and FaceTimes them on days she doesn’t pick them up from school or take them on an outing.
“My thing is to be active and in the outdoors with them,” said Fhima.
This winter, she’s joining them on the ice while teaching them to skate. Fhima spent much of her own childhood on figure skates, touring the world with the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice after high school.
“I taught my grandson to snowboard, the three of us go sledding,” she said. “We swim together in the summer, we have dance parties. When my younger son [the grandkids’ uncle] ran Grandma’s Marathon, we went up to cheer and run the last mile with him.”
With her halo of tousled hair and dimples that deepen when she grins, it’s no wonder Sofia and Jackson call her “Glamma.”
It’s a role she embraces.
“I keep their car seats in my car so we’re always ready to go,” said Fhima, who is single. “I used to joke, that’s a real buzzkill when guys walk me to my car after a date.”
Seeking heartfelt time
The new generation of enthusiastic grandparents is reconfiguring and redefining the role. As they retire or slow their careers, they have the time to make financial and emotional investments in the next generation.
“There are a lot of outdated assumptions about grandparents that we need to let go of. Their values are different and that’s having a ripple effect in their families,” said consumer strategist Rebecca Kolls.
Known in the Twin Cities as a television meteorologist and garden show host, Kolls left broadcasting a decade ago to work for Gartner, a global consulting company. Her area of expertise is baby boomers, advising Fortune 500 companies on how to market to them.
“Boomers had a different, closer familial bond with their own children than they had with their parents. Now they want heartfelt time with their grandchildren,” she said. “Boomers want to live their legacy by sharing their values. We’d rather leave [grandchildren] memories we make together than a pot of money.”
Using original research, polling and census data, Kolls completed an extensive report on the newest generation of grands, focusing on younger baby boomers ages 56 to 65, who make up 37% of the grandparent population.
“Half of them are working but they prioritize being actively involved in their grandkids’ lives. They coach their teams, volunteer at their schools, in some cases they’re taking their helicopter parenting attitude to the next generation,” she said.
The research resonated with Kolls, 58, because she’s living it with her own 3-year-old granddaughter, who has changed her life in surprising ways.
“Once I started chasing that little pipsqueak, I said, ‘I need to build my stamina.’ I refocused on my own health and joined a fitness group; now I sweat through cardio and high-intensity workouts so I’ll be able to keep up with her,” she said.
Kolls’ grandchild calls her Gogo because they’re often on the move together, taking nature walks, boating on the St. Croix River, playing in a park.
“I’ve worked my whole life to have this relationship. I want to be the grandparent I always wanted. My grandparents lived far away; they patted me on the head, sent me a birthday card with a dollar inside. They didn’t participate with me. I think that was pretty common.”
Eight years ago, Barb and Bill Wolfe retired, unloaded their possessions and sold the Eden Prairie house where they’d raised their family.
“Our parents were gone, our kids were on their own. We thought, ‘Let’s have some fun,’ ” said Bill, 68. “We were looking for adventure.”
Their quest took them first to Ecuador, where they lived high in the Andes for three years, then on to Portugal.
“The pace was slow, the scenery was gorgeous, We’d hop on a plane and be in France in a hour,” said Barb, 66. “We were loving life. It was fantastic.”
But four years into that leg of the adventure, the couple returned to Minnesota to meet their grandson — named William for his grandpa — and found that one little baby held more appeal than the grand cities of Europe.
“Just like that, it was time to come home. He was quite the draw,” said Bill.
Now little Willie is toddling and his grandparents are settled into a Minneapolis apartment six miles away, where it’s a quick hop back and forth when they pop in for a quick visit or pick him up for a playdate.
“We love watching the world through his eyes,” said Barb. “He’s developing his sense of humor. We catch every little milestone.”
The Wolfes want to continue to globe-trot, now dreaming of the day when their grandson will accompany them.
“We want to broaden his view of the world. Travel is our big thing; it brought us a different perspective of tolerance and other cultures,” Barb said. “We can’t wait to drag him around with us.”
Thanks to divorce and remarriage, grandparents figure into the complexities of blended families. They can claim step-grandchildren when their adult children remarry a partner with kids. Or their own new spouse can become a bonus Mimi or Poppa to their grandkids.
When Marty Shimko married Joe Stuer, his six grandchildren were included in the festivities. Partners for 22 years and spouses for three, both men were previously in heterosexual marriages; Joe’s was childless while Marty had three sons.
“My ex-wife has remarried, so the grandkids have three grandfathers on their dad’s side,” said Shimko, of Coon Rapids. “We’re Grandpa Marty and Grandpa Joe, just a couple who cares deeply for our grandkids.”
The grandchildren range in age from 1 to 17; since their wedding, the grandfathers have celebrated the arrival of a new baby. Shimko, 62, and Stuer, 57, are old enough to remember a time when the easy relationships they enjoy with the children would have been impossible.
“When I was the age of my grandchildren, gay relationships were hidden and whispered about. Suspected gay relatives would have been kept at arm’s length from children,” said Shimko. “Now the little kids are growing up with us in their lives from the start, and this is the world the teenagers live in. They see gay couples all the time; it’s no big deal.”
That’s not the only change in the intergenerational dynamic that Shimko observes.
“My grandparents ran a dairy farm and when we visited, it was to work and to help. But back then grandparents were old,” Shimko laughed. “Now we’re riding roller coasters with the grandkids; 60 really is the new 40, isn’t it?”
Grandparents in waiting
At the turn of the last century, grandparents typically counted 12 to 15 grandchildren, according to research from the University of North Carolina. Today’s grandparents average three.
Baby boomers married later, delayed parenting and produced smaller families than previous generations. Now their offspring are following that pattern with even fewer children; data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the U.S. fertility rate fell to an all-time low in 2018.
That leaves many of grandparenting age still waiting — and yearning — to hold a grandchild.
“I admit it. I’ve had terrible grandmother hunger. My kids have been telling me for 10 years that my time would come,” said Gail Meyer, a retired Minneapolis public school teacher.
Her patience paid off. In October, Meyer and her husband Neil, who are in their early 70s, became first-time grandparents to their daughter’s daughter.
“Oh, she takes my breath away! Such a beautiful little girl, the toothless wonder,” Meyer gushed.
Baby Ilana lives in Washington, D.C., and the Meyers, known now as Bubbie and Zayde, have already been back and forth several times, with Gail on duty for six weeks when her daughter went back to work.
“I think Ilana recognizes my voice. I see how she’s getting up on her elbows, holding her head up now, getting stronger,” Meyer said. “What a joy!”
As long-distance grandparents, the Meyers have plenty of company. According to a 2018 study by AARP, about half of all grandparents have at least one grandchild living more than 200 miles away.
Many turn to technology to stay close, sharing pictures on Facebook and FaceTiming regularly. Several giant consumer tech companies have mounted commercial campaigns that feature doting internet-savvy grandparents who read bedtime stories or stage virtual puppet shows via smart-screen portals.
Kolls found that the desire to build the bond with grandchildren prompts geographically distant grandparents to seek out the latest gadgets. Her survey found grandparents three times more likely to have connected devices in their homes than non-grandparents, and 15% more likely to use smartphones.
“Their relationships are dependent on devices. Technology lets them connect in a way that would have been impossible in the past, when grandparents saw their grandchildren at the holidays,” she said.
Grandparents as glue
But it’s not all toys and travel.
For a rising number of grandparents, the role is full-time, assumed when an adult child proves unable to parent. The Minnesota Board on Aging estimates that 68,000 kids in the state now live under the primary care of a grandparent or other older relative, a number that jumped by 40% in the past two decades.
Even when grandparents are not actively parenting, many provide badly needed glue to hold busy, two-career families together.
“Grandparents are providing the safety net; what would our economy do without them? Parents rely on them for backup when they’re sick and count on them to get kids to their activities,” said Phyllis Moen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.
“It’s unpaid work they do for love. The workplace still isn’t changing to accommodate family life and grandparents are stepping into the breach.”
A solid body of research confirms that close intergenerational connections create long-term benefits for both the youngest and oldest members of a family. Those positives can last for decades; a German study found that a third of grandparents have weekly contact with adult grandchildren, and another third connect on a monthly basis.
Statistically, the life expectancy for Americans today is 78, up 25 years over the past century. Today’s grandparents can expect to be around longer than their own grandparents were, and to live healthier, more active lives.
That’s something Leslie Fhima is counting on to keep the bounce in her step.
“When I was raising my own children, I was a single mother, juggling everything. Now I have the space in my life to give my grandchildren real quality time that I didn’t always get to do with my kids,” she said. “My grandkids are my do-over.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.