Expert view

Geraldine Bedell

A former feature writer for the Observer and columnist for the Independent on Sunday, Geraldine Bedell is the editor of Gransnet. She writes and broadcasts widely on grandparents and the second half of life.

www.gransnet.com

Think technology baffles grandparents? Think again. 

Geraldine Bedell of Gransnet reveals how online forums are liberating and empowering grandparents all over the UK.


“So, what do they talk about? Knitting?” This is one of the most common responses when I tell people I edit Gransnet, the leading social networking site for grandparents.  

Despite all the evidence to the contrary – despite the fact that most people know at least one hale and hearty grandparent – the image of grans is still of little old grey-haired ladies quietly occupying themselves with harmless handicrafts.  

“Are there enough of them online?” is the other question I regularly get asked. In fact, over-65s are the fastest-growing age group on the internet and they spend more time logged on than anyone else. And half of all grandparents are younger than 65 anyway (10% of them are under 50).

Far from being parked in the corner, many grandparents are busier than ever – working, volunteering and looking after their elderly relatives as well as their grandchildren – and generally being what one gransnetter calls “the jam in the sandwich”.

So the stereotypes are out of date (in both directions, in fact, because knitting is now highly fashionable among artistic young people).

Given that Skype, Facebook and photo sharing have opened up new ways to keep in touch with your family, it’s not surprising that grandparents have been tempted to embrace technology. And like everyone else, once they’ve dipped a toe in the water, they tend to be seduced by the wealth of experiences available.

Like other thoughtful adults, though, grandparents worry about aspects of their grandchildren’s use of digital technologies. Are they spending too much time online? What are they seeing? Do their parents look up from their own laptop or mobile often enough to notice that they’re playing violent computer games? What are their own responsibilities here, as grandparents?

So there are plenty of incentives to find out more, not only so they can engage in conversations about being safe online with some authority, but also to discover what else we can get out of the various devices on which we are increasingly dependent.

You know that no-one will judge you online.”

 

 

If we don’t talk about knitting (mainly), what do we talk about on the Web? Quite a lot of the time, things you’re not supposed to discuss in polite company: politics, religion, sex, bowels, mammograms, difficulties in our relationships. There is stuff you can say anonymously on a forum that you could never mention anywhere else.

“All the things we’ve bottled up for years now have a safe outlet,” comments one of our users. “You know that no-one will judge you. Gransnet is the only place I have ever been able to express my true feelings about my mother.”

Such confidences tend to create an atmosphere of support and loyalty because once you’ve been entrusted with someone’s secrets, hopes and disappointments, you’re bound to feel concerned for them.

The most surprising aspect of Gransnet to me, after a year of existence, is the complexity of our users. Of course I’m complex, but a lot of the time we don’t see other people as having the same hidden depths. And perhaps this is particularly true of anyone over 50.

There is a resistance to thinking about the middle aged and old as multifaceted, not least because of persistent ageism. There was recently a discussion about loneliness on the site, and a number of the funniest, most lively gransnetters admitted to being lonely some of the time. You just wouldn’t have known.

The ways in which we define and pigeonhole people in the real world don’t apply online and, for some gransnetters, that is a real liberation. If they don’t want to tell the rest of us – or don’t want to tell us until we’ve got to know how forceful and interesting they are – that they walk with a stick, they don’t have to.

Not only are gransnetters the sum of all our (now quite long-lived) parts, but we’re also a pretty diverse bunch – bonded by our love for our grandchildren, but beyond that, living all over the country, at different stages of life and with a lot of different attitudes. So we’re not easy to categorise.

Our members are pretty diverse politically, as in everything else, but there are certain causes that broadly unite us. It is a truism that women become invisible as they age – one of the common complaints on Gransnet is that older people find it hard to make their voices heard, particularly to politicians and the media – but thousands of us complaining on the internet is a bit more difficult to ignore.

One of the most persistent debates on our forums has been about ageism in hospital and the lack of dignity with which older patients are treated. We managed to get both the Minister of State for Care Services, Paul Burstow and the Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, Liz Kendall in to address these concerns directly to gransnetters in live Web chats.

Gransnet is the best Help button ever.”

 

So, digital grandparenting has opened up a much broader range of interests for many of our members, who are, generally speaking, enjoying a phase of life that has never existed before: post-children but pre-old age and in a relatively long period of health and activity.

We hear a good deal about the ageing population, but what we’re really seeing is an extended middle age, when it’s perfectly possible to be a grandparent yet to be more connected to the rest of the world than you’ve ever been before.

From a starting point of wanting to connect with their grandchildren and follow what they’re up to, grandparents are discovering a whole range of interests online. All of human life is on the internet and a fair bit of it is on Gransnet.

“I love this forum. Where else can you get advice about dentures?!” one member posted recently. “Gransnet is the best Help button ever,” commented another. “Someone always seems to have the answer.”

Including, I am glad to say, about knitting.