A Grandma or Grandpa by Any Other Name Is Just as Old
Boomers Want to Pick What Grandkids Will Call Them: Meet Glamma and Papa Doc
By ANN ZIMMERMAN
Aging baby boomers are in the midst of a grandbaby boom, and they're struggling with a bunch of issues.
How to be attentive grandparents while having a busy career and, increasingly, caring for their own elderly parents? How to stay close to the tykes while living far away?
But one of the most vexing issues they face is deciding what they want to be called by their grandchildren, lest it make them sound -- and feel -- old. It's another example of how baby boomers, whose anthem was Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," are not going gently into old age.
While many people are happy with the old appellations, Granny, Gramps, Bubbe and Zayde just won't do for this group, with their toned bodies, plastic surgery and youthful outlooks. How about Grand-dude?
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky, a 56-year-old Dallas documentary filmmaker and photographer, became a grandmother on Christmas Day. For months, her friends and family had pestered her about what she wanted her new granddaughter to call her.
"I didn't see myself as a Bubbe," Ms. Wilkofsky said, citing the Yiddish word for grandmother popular among grandparents of baby boomers, Americans born in the population surge between 1946 and 1964. "That's someone from the old country, who has an accent, looks frumpy and wears a babushka."
That's definitely not Ms. Wilkofsky, who exercises religiously and has worn her hair long, straight and parted in the middle at least since 1967's "summer of love."
"The only time I wear a kerchief is when I am driving my two-seater convertible," she says.
So Ms. Wilkofsky has decided to be called Glamma, as in glamorous grandmother, a name suggested by one of her girlfriends. Her husband, Steven, a 58-year-old doctor, said he didn't want a typical grandfatherly name, either, because "I still feel like I am 25." So he chose to go by "Papa Doc." He was going for a Marcus Welby, M.D. vibe -- after the mellow, graying doctor in a popular television series in the late '60s and early '70s -- but unfortunately the name reminds most people of the late Haitian dictator, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
Experts in the field of aging are not surprised that baby boomers are seeking creative ways to avoid wrinkly sounding labels. "That whole generation is reinventing old age," says Tom Nelson, chief operating officer of AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
In fact, AARP's marketing department has had to devise new ways of talking to boomers so as not to alienate them by making them feel old. The association's magazine was called Modern Maturity for decades and two years ago was renamed AARP The Magazine. "We have put some iconic boomers on the cover, including Caroline Kennedy and Jamie Lee Curtis, and their take on aging and all the great work they are doing reflects how aging isn't something that has to be dreaded," Mr. Nelson says.
Comedy writer Alan Zweibel was called to a family summit several months before his grandson, Zachary, was born in November. His daughter-in-law arranged the meeting with the soon-to-be grandparents so they could pick out names and avoid duplications.
'Grandpa Is a Stereotype'
Mr. Zweibel, 58 and one of the original writers on "Saturday Night Live," opted for "Lefty," or "Sheriff."
"I didn't want to be called 'Grandpa.' A grandpa is a stereotype -- someone who has white hair, is hunched over and pees involuntarily," says Mr. Zweibel. "Anyone can be called grandma or grandpa. That's what you are. I am not going to call him grandson. My name should be special, a way to individualize the relationship, put some personality -- and wit -- into it."
Some children of baby boomers are perplexed or even annoyed that their parents are so concerned about vanity and self-interest. When Phoenix resident Ellie Crystal gave birth to her daughter, Lyndsey, seven years ago, she wanted her to have a Bubbe in her life, just as she and her sister had when they were growing up.
"It was cute and nurturing, and I wanted to carry on the tradition," Ms. Crystal says.
But her mother-in-law, who was in her late 50s at the time, refused, because she said it made her feel too old. Ditto for Ms. Crystal's own mother, who felt, in addition, that the name Bubbe conjured up the image of a neurotic, overprotective worrywart. Ms. Crystal concedes the point: "My Bubbe was the type of person who made us wear bathrobes when we went to the pool, even if it was 85 degrees, because she was afraid we would catch a chill."
Ms. Crystal's mother-in-law, now her ex-mother-in-law, reluctantly compromised on "Grandma," while Ms. Crystal's own mom agreed to "Nana."
From the instant Heather Schamerloh, a Dallas dog trainer, told her family she was pregnant, her mother made it abundantly clear she did not want to be called grandma.
"She's very hip and in touch with fashion," Ms. Schamerloh says of her mother, Janelle Friedman, who is in her early 50s.
The name Ms. Friedman chose for herself: "Coco," as in fashion icon Coco Chanel. "It doesn't bother me, it's her deal," says Ms. Schamerloh.
For the boomers, devising age-defying sobriquets for their grandparent roles is not simply about trying to stay young. It also reflects the desire to play by their own rules, to put their individual stamp on the experience.
To that end, Mr. Zweibel, the writer, has written a children's book about the day his grandson was born. "I thought nothing would bond us more than this book about me and him," Mr. Zweibel says.
Experts in aging say boomers will play their grandparent roles differently from previous generations. And some of them waited so long to have their own children that they will be very old indeed by the time their kids have kids. But just as many boomers were so involved hovering over their own children that they earned the name "helicopter parents," they will insert themselves in their grandchildren's lives in new ways as well.
My Role as Coach
Steven Wilkofsky, aka Papa Doc, agrees. "We will do it our way. Our grandparents never said, 'Pack your bags, we're taking you to the Grand Canyon.' I plan to take my grandchildren on trips. I want to physically and mentally challenge them. I saw my role as a parent to be a coach, and I want to do the same as a grandparent."
His wife, Susan, aka Glamma, says that the name her granddaughter calls her is not as important as the bond she hopes they will share.
"I don't care what she calls me," says Ms. Wilkofsky, "just as long as she calls me -- even for money."
For the record, they call us Abu and Nana.