Grandma and grandpa called into action

Greek families have always depended on grandparents for helping to raise the children, be it taking care of them when they’re toddlers so that they don’t have to go to kindergarten or be kept by a hired nanny while the parents are at work, or later in life to provide food, support and a bit of extra pocket money.

Today, with the economic crisis taking bigger and bigger bites out of household budgets, grandma and grandpa have become an essential part of the family structure, without which it could crumble. Despite their own reduced circumstances due to cutbacks in pensions and benefits, Greece’s elderly still put something aside for their children and grandchildren when they’re doing their weekly shopping, and will try in any way they can to make their own contribution in time or money when necessary.

According to statistics published by the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people aged over 60 in the world stood at 600 million in 2000 and is expected to shoot up to 1.2 billion before 2025. In Greece, the number of over-60s in 2004 was 2.5 million, with women being the solid majority. The figures also show that 17.1 percent of the Greek population is aged over 65 years old, while this figure is expected to reach 24 percent by 2020.

In many Greek households it is the grandparents that pick the kids up from school, cook and feed them their lunch, take them out for walks to the park and help them with their homework until the parents get back from work.

This is the case for Loukia Papalaskari, aged 83, who goes to her daughter’s house twice a week to help out, even though it’s some distance away. “I have been doing this since my grandchildren were born,” she said, “and I’m happy to continue as they get older.” “Grandma is the connecting link that covers the voids created when parents are away at work. We are like substitutes,” Papalaskari said, adding that she also gets a lot of fulfillment from her role.

“It gives me a reason to keep living, to stay active. And the most important thing is to do it without complaining; to do it with pleasure.”

A well-educated woman who speaks English, French, Italian and Portuguese, Papalaskari shares her knowledge with her grandchildren. “I also help them with Ancient Greek and history. I’m not that good with math, because there is so much more on the curriculum now,” she explained. “I also function as a consultant on many subjects, including stopping the children from spending too much time in front of the computer.”

This grandmother is also key to keeping the family’s history alive, as among the fairy tales and stories she tells her grandchildren, there is also a generous smattering of family anecdotes.

On the other side of this kind of domestic bliss are hundreds of elderly people who either have no family or are estranged from their children and have no one to keep them company or look after them. Many of these people are looked after by nongovernmental groups, such as Grammi Zois (Life Line), which provides 872 elderly people around Greece with emergency care, and has a waiting list with 3,500 new applications. Their members are equipped with an alarm button they wear on their wrist and can press in case of accident or sickness, alerting the service.

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