Grandparents Gone Wild in Philly

The newest empty nesters infiltrating Philly are looking to fill their homes right back up — between progressive dinner parties, that is.

Illustration by Gluekit

Illustration by Gluekit

I was lucky; Cate Lux was able to squeeze me in for coffee. She had just returned from meeting her newest granddaughter in Oregon and was right back into her regular schedule: art classes at Fleisher Art Memorial, helping out part-time at a school, trips to the Barnes, progressive dinners with friends, programs at the Union League, two book clubs — oh, and minding her grandkids, who like to swim in the pool at her Washington Square building. As I sat across from Lux at Talula’s Daily, it struck me: This 65-year-old former schoolteacher with beaming hazel eyes and a chic blond bob could be busier than Betty White.

Three years ago, her life looked dramatically different. She was in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where she had lived for 30 years, recently retired and newly widowed. “I felt so isolated. So many of my friends had their grandchildren there,” says Lux. “I had always seen those older women walking with their shopping carts in the city, and I liked that.” Plus, two of her three kids live in Philly. So her daughter found her an apartment in the St. James, and Lux made the move, not knowing anyone here beyond her family.

For many boomers, the ideal retirement situation looks like a commercial for a Fidelity IRA: warm weather, walks on the beach, bridge at the clubhouse. In other words, the opposite of Philadelphia. Yet there are more people ages 55 to 69 in Center City now than a decade ago, as arrivistes from the nearby suburbs have been steadily filling up apartments, museums and restaurants. But the latest wave of retirees seems to be moving here from across the country, and for one reason: It’s where their kids are. The typical American lives within 18 miles of Mom. The more educated you are, however, the more likely you are to move farther away, often to big cities for jobs. And when you don’t want to move home, you move Mom closer to you.

“It was always the idea that they’d move to where we were,” Elizabeth McDonald Treatman says of her parents, who relocated here from suburban Chicago in 2013. “Luckily, they love Philly.” Treatman, 36, and her family live in Bella Vista; her parents settled in at the Drake, the Ghostbusters-like building at 15th and Spruce. Her dad, a retired economist, teaches a class at Temple and still writes books. And both parents are available to help in a pinch. In fact, the morning we spoke, Treatman thought her second baby was coming early, so they zipped over to take her son while she and hubby hightailed it to the hospital. For working parents who need to be in 10 places at once, having someone always on call is better than any gift from Buy Buy Baby. Sick days, snow days and doctor appointments all go off with minimal disruption — and cost. Sure, this could be seen as the continued enabling of the trophy generation — but really, it’s just pretty awesome for everyone. These grandparents say that being there for both special events (holiday shows, birthday parties) and the mundane (sick days, Costco runs) is how they want to spend their golden years, and they love all the city has to offer. For their kids, the extra help and having their aging parents close by are equally appealing.

Of course, there can be tension. Not setting boundaries could make a great situation turn Meet the Parents in a flash. Jonathan Menachem’s parents moved from Tennessee in 2014, about a year after he relocated to South Philly for a fellowship at HUP. The elder Menachems — Karen, 69, and Allan, 70 — rent a house in Society Hill and see their twin granddaughters often, between school drop-offs and pickups and taking them to Hebrew school. “But there are no pop-ins,” says Karen. “They have their routines.” She will, however, drop off the occasional chicken. (Dinner. Bonus.)

Turns out the grands are having such a great time in Philly that the kids can end up fighting for face time. The Menachems made friends “in 10 minutes,” says Jon’s wife, Robin. Treatman says the Drake is like a dorm, and her parents’ social life has gotten a lot more active. Same with Lux, whose daughter has dubbed the St. James “the sorority house.” (Its overcrowded book club had to be split into two groups.) The crew even has its own Central Perk: Frieda, a few blocks away, is a coffeehouse with activities geared toward multi-generational hanging. “I went to two parties on New Year’s Eve,” says Lux. “And never left the building!”