A day for young and old to honor each other, and an opportunity for civic engagement for all generations
National Grandparents Day falls each year on the first Sunday after Labor Day. It's not a holiday invented to sell cards and flowers. It was initiated at the grassroots level by West Virginian Marian Lucille Herndon McQuade, with the behind-the-scenes support of her husband Joseph L. McQuade. They had 15 children, 43 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. After being married for over 60 years, Mr. McQuade passed away in 2001. Mrs. McQuade passed away in 2008.
There are three purposes for National Grandparents Day:
To honor grandparents.
To give grandparents an opportunity to show love for their children's children.
To help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance older people can offer.
Mrs. McQuade wanted Grandparents Day to be a family day. She envisioned families enjoying small, private gatherings, perhaps even a family reunion, or participating in community events.
On a societal level, National Grandparents Day gives us a chance to publicly affirm the identity and importance of grandparents, that they do play a vital role in families. It is also a day of giving – giving of self; sharing hopes, dreams, and values; and setting an example and advocating for future generations. Generations United in Washington, DC encourages all ages to engage in intergenerational civic engagement for the entire week following National Grandparents Day.
Mrs. McQuade has modestly referred to herself as "just a housewife," but her unending work to establish and publicize the holiday marks her as a true community leader. She spent much of her life advocating for older adults. In 1971 she was elected Vice-Chair of the West Virginia Committee on Aging and appointed as a delegate to the White House Conference on Aging. In 1972, Mrs. McQuade's efforts resulted in President Richard Nixon proclaiming a National Shut-in Day. She served as President of the Vocational Rehabilitation Foundation, Vice-President of the West Virginia Health Systems Agency, and was appointed to the Nursing Home Licensing Board, among many other involvements.
Mrs. McQuade started her campaign for a day to honor grandparents in 1970. She worked with civic, business, church, and political leaders to first launch the day in her home state in 1973. Then, after many years, much persuasion, and unending persistence, she finally achieved her bigger goal. It was in 1979 that President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the first Sunday after Labor Day each year as National Grandparents Day (September was chosen to signify the "autumn" years of life). In part, the proclamation reads:
Grandparents are our continuing tie to the near-past, to the events and beliefs and experiences that so strongly affect our lives and the world around us. Whether they are our own or surrogate grandparents who fill some of the gaps in our mobile society, our senior generation also provides our society a link to our national heritage and traditions.
We all know grandparents whose values transcend passing fads and pressures, and who possess the wisdom of distilled pain and joy. Because they are usually free to love and guide and befriend the young without having to take daily responsibility for them, they can often reach out past pride and fear of failure and close the space between generations.
Mrs. McQuade was thrilled when her efforts were finally realized. "I couldn't believe it," she said. Since the holiday's inception, Mrs. McQuade has been firm in her view that the holiday should not become overly commercialized, and that young and old remember its fundamental spirit.
Grandparents Day was recognized in Canada in 1995 as falling on the second Sunday in September to acknowledge the importance of grandparents to "the structure of the family in the nurturing, upbringing, and education of children... [Grandparents play] a critical role in strengthening the family." Commented one member of Canadian parliament speaking on behalf of the motion:
I do not hold grandparents to be glorified babysitters but rather as parents' surrogates who bring love, a continuance of generational values, and a sense of the child's worth to the integrity of the family... I was brought up by a grandparent. My parents both worked outside the home for most of my life. They needed to for economic reasons. It was my grandmother who nurtured me, gave me a sense of worth and molded in many ways the course my life was to take. My grandmother was my role model, my mentor, and my confidant.
While Mother's Day and Father's Day have apostrophes, officially Grandparents Day does not. It seems this may have simply been an oversight when the holiday was proclaimed. But it's an oversight that serves the holiday well. Mrs. McQuade did not envision the holiday as "belonging" to grandparents. Instead, she saw it as a day of celebration involving the whole family, a day to connect the generations. It's just as much a day to honor grandparents as it is a day for grandparents themselves to confirm their loving legacy to the generations that follow them.
Mrs. McQuade's interest and concern for seniors seems to have been sparked by her own grandmother. "After working all day on the farm, Grandma would walk off to visit elderly people in the community," she recalled. "Often I would tag along. I never forgot talking with those delightful people. That's where my love and respect for oldsters started."
Mrs. McQuade's legacy has been carried on by many of her children and grandchildren.
Daughter Ruth McQuade is a trial attorney for the US Department of Justice. She says her mother's legacy to her is two-fold: "She was always talking about the connection to all our relatives. She was always keeping records on grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins – where they had come from and what they had done. She also impressed upon me at an early age the importance of grandparents and the elderly. I remember making speeches at 4-H about it at a very early age."
It's clear she's also very proud of her mother: "My mother worked long and hard to establish a Grandparents Day. She was a one-woman effort. I'm glad she stuck with it. I'm glad a lot of good things are coming out of it."
Another daughter, DJ McQuade-Lancaster, remembers her mother as much more than just the founder of National Grandparents Day. "She sewed all our clothes until I was in senior high school. She grew African violets. She collected stamps. She made sure we had piano lessons. She entered the West Virginia Mrs. America contest. She ran for Congress."
Lailah Rice is one of Mrs. McQuade's granddaughters. "My grandmother fought to get shut-ins noticed," she says. "When I was little, my grandmother took me to visit shut-ins. I want to carry forward what my grandmother worked so hard for, especially National Grandparents Day."
When asked about memories of her grandmother, it's evident that Mrs. McQuade was a strong role model. Says Lailah, "My grandmother was very free-spirited, feisty, and very caring and nurturing toward others."
Lailah also has fond memories of visits: "Whenever I'd go over to my grandmother's, we'd look at the coins she collected and sort them by year into bags. She was fascinated by coins and the year they represented. One of the things we did was find the coin with the year we were born."
And Lailah has a message for today's children: "You can learn a lot more from grandparents than you think you can – and it's not a chore."
National Grandparents Day is an important official marker of intergenerational relationships. But increasingly, schools and community groups are organizing Grandparents Day (or Intergenerational Day) events at any time during the year as a way to bring together families and build community. Children have an opportunity to show their appreciation and love toward their grandparents (and other special older adult friends), and grandparents feel valued as their role is validated.
The Legacy Project offers a complete Grandparents Day Planning & Activity Guide for schools, seniors centers, and community groups. There are also a wide range of meaningful activities you can choose from to bring the generations closer and celebrate the value of intergenerational relationships.