THE screensaver on my phone is of my two-year-old step-grandson, opening a birthday present last week. His mouth is a choirboy oval as he rips off the wrapping and discovers a postal van, with postie at the wheel. It’s among the happiest images I’ve seen for ages, topped only by one of him in the park, dipping into a packet of cheddars and looking quizzical as his big sister – much less interested in food – wears them like swimming goggles.

In the past two months, I’ve spoken to dozens of people for whom lack of contact with their grandchildren is the toughest part of lockdown. A shop assistant was palpably distressed as she told me she couldn’t go with her pregnant daughter for her scan, or see the twins she usually collects twice a week from school. One of my friends had booked to fly to Australia to be with her daughter when her baby – the first grandchild – arrived. Instead, she is stranded thousands of miles away, anxiously watching the calendar, and knitting, knitting, knitting.

It’s no surprise that the likes of Zoom and Facetime have become emotional life-rafts, with everyone rushing to climb aboard. Earlier this week, my sister was making granola with an eight-year-old, an hour’s drive away in Glasgow. With four of her grandsons in one household, portal sessions can be chaotic. The two-year-old usually makes an appearance only at the bottom of the screen, detected by a tuft of blond hair moving at speed beyond reach.

If you could see the profiles of those using this technology, you’d find it flooded with retirees, desperate for a glimpse of their families and their youngest. It might be a poor substitute for a hug, but most would agree that online chats are better than nothing. Children grow so swiftly, time-lapse photography would make you giddy. They shoot up faster than Leylandii, and learn new words every day. My great-nephew’s favourite just now is “disgusting”. He applies this to his mother’s cooking.

Half the older population is probably, like me, filling their devices with adorable pictures, and frantically upgrading their cloud storage to contain it all. It makes me wonder, did my grandparents delight in photos of my siblings and me? I’ll never know. Thinking of them is like going back to another place and time – which is where, as Edwardian Londoners, they came from. When I was a girl, most folk were considered decrepit at 65. And often they were, worn out from work and hardship. Reaching retirement was the time for pipe and slippers rather than bungee jumping or skydiving. The grandchildren who visited once a week, or month, or at Christmas, were patted on the head, spoken to in a loud voice, and indulged with sweets. When it was time to leave, there was rarely any protest.

I used to envy school friends whose aged relatives were closely involved with their lives. Today, that closeness is taken for granted, as the older folks work a rota, caring for youngsters after school or during holidays, while their parents work.

It is one of the loveliest rapports to observe. In a culture that puts a lot of pressure on the young, to do well at school or university, to look good and be popular, the advice and companionship of those who have seen it all, and take a relaxed view, is invaluable. There’s much hand-wringing about the state of modern society, with fractured or dysfunctional families causing heartache and instability. Not much is said, however, of the role grandparents play in holding things together and nurturing those on the first and most precarious rungs of life.

Adjectives that can be applied to most working mothers and fathers include irritable, harassed and exhausted. Those over 50, especially once their careers have ended, have shot those rapids and are in calmer waters. Grandchildren instinctively recognise that they’ll find in them a champion who puts them first, whether it’s as a bulwark against strict rules and nagging, or simply someone who isn’t always watching the clock. Time and patience are the most important gift a grandparent has to give: to play, read, go for a walk, watch a film, or take a child to football practice and roar encouragement from the sidelines. It doesn’t really matter what they actually do together, simply having someone’s attention for a few hours is priceless. And for granddads especially, I suspect, it’s a chance to offer something they had in too short supply when they were raising their own brood.

In terms of the family machine, there’s never been a time when this ageing cohort has been more crucial to its smooth running. With most parents working within a year or two of a child’s birth, the period when offspring need to be collected from nursery, or be cared for after school or out of term-time, has significantly expanded. Only recently have economists begun to calculate the worth of this unpaid army of nannies, chauffeurs, shuttlers, carers, cooks, cleaners and counsellors.

It won’t surprise anyone who falls into this group to learn that the hidden price of childcare on the national balance sheet is huge. One analysis in 2019 estimated that, on average, such help annually saves a family £6600. That’s £22 billion across the UK. Few grandparents would ever see their contribution in pounds and pence, even those who are far from well-off themselves. Yet it is implicitly understood that without their help, countless thousands of households would struggle to hold down their jobs and make ends meet.

The ongoing effect of Covid 19 on contact between generations could be profound. As the world returns to work, many grandparents will be obliged to watch on, from relative isolation, for who knows how much longer?

But for most who are in this predicament, it’s not the maths that’s worrying them. It is the absence of physical contact: fingers sticky with chocolate, displays of cartwheels and bunny jumps, revision schedules more complicated than a ScotRail timetable. And it is a two-way loss, children missing out as much as they do. The loving web that binds young and old is usually invisible, and passes largely unnoticed. Yet, as we’ll soon see, it’s a crucial network that keeps the country running.

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