Is Taking Care of the Grandkids Good for Your Health?

It Depends on Whether You Have a Choice

Posted May 27, 2018

Grandchildren are the bonus you get when your kids have kids of their own, but could stepping up to a second round of parenting the youngest generation be hazardous to your own physical, emotional and/or  financial well-being?  Is it always the right thing to do for everyone, even when it seems like the only thing?

“My daughter fell apart when her marriage did,” said a fifty-five year old woman who was okay with assuming the care of her four year old grandson for what she expected would be a 28 day stint in rehab. That was nine years ago. “There really wasn’t any other choice,” she said. "His father disappeared years ago. The only other option was foster care, which I wouldn’t consider for my own flesh and blood.” She admits that raising an angry teenager has taken its toll: “I’m taking Prozac and my husband’s blood pressure is way too high.” -   and that relations with her daughter are difficult. “She waltzes in every few months, usually high, and makes outlandish promises to him. When she disappoints him, he takes it out on us. Sometimes I wish she’d stay away completely if she can’t be there consistently.”

In fact, the crack epidemic of the 90’s, the recession of the mid-aughts, and the rapid rise in opioid abuse in recent years  are part of the reason why more than 13 million children are living in homes with  2.7 million of their grandparents. Nearly half of their parents are substance abusers; more than a quarter of them were abandoned, abused, or neglected, and 11% have lost at least one parent to death.

While two thirds of families maintained by at least one grandparent also include at least one parent, for some it’s the only solution to the economic realities of life. When family boundaries are respected – when both generations agree on what the rules are, who has the first and last word in matters relating to the kids, and on how they share and maintain household responsibilities – a more mutual relationship exists between parents and their adult children and family ties provide safety, security and companionship.

A new cross-cultural study indicates that the adjustment to caregiving by grandparents depends on whether it’s by choice or obligation[1], and data reveal that higher educated grandparents provide less intensive grandparenting than lower socioeconomic groups. But even middle-class comforts don’t provide relief from depressive symptoms and lower well-being among older adults who feel obligated to step in when their own kids can’t.  “I can give my grandkids a lot, but I wish I could give it from a slightly longer distance,” says an affluent woman whose plans for this stage of her life didn’t include carpooling, PTA meetings, and limiting her traveling and socializing with her recently retired husband.  “I finally did what I couldn’t do when my children were growing up – I hired a nanny,” she said. “So there’s some relief from the daily caretaking, if not the primary responsibility for them.” She talks about how disappointed she is in  her own child and how she hopes not to repeat with her grandchildren the mistakes she must have made with her now 42-year-old daughter: “If I’d raised her right, her kids wouldn’t be living with me now.”

 While grandchild care may enable social engagement and an active life style, which are important for sustaining good health and cognition in older people, its effects  vary according to its intensity and by cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic status.  Financially, over 20% of custodial grandparents live below the poverty line, but many own their own homes and don’t work full ltime, which allows for substantial intergenerational transfer of both money and time. Reports on noncustodial grandparental care have found both positive and negative health effects; however, high-intensity grandparenting has been associated with poorer health outcomes, while nonintensive grandchild care (4 or more hours a week) was associated with improved well-being in grandfathers and lower depression scores of grandmothers.

But even when time and money aren't a problem, parenting when you’re close to or beyond retirement age has enough challenges besides finding the physical strength to cope with an active toddler or a cranky teenager. “I’m always apologizing for how their mother has let them down or their father, who’s supposed to have custody, hasn’t seen them in weeks,” said a middle-class woman who’s been raising her twin grandsons since her divorced daughter abandoned them. “They get harder as they get older and I love them, but I’m too old to handle the calls from the principal’s office or the problems in the neighborhood and the constant squabbling between them.” Custodial grandchildren have higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems than those in the average US population: Boys raised by their grandparents are more likely to have externalized behavior problems than girls, who are more likely to internalize issues.

Sometimes an extended  support system helps grandparents raising their kids –  community resources ranging from respite care to family counseling, legal aid to financial assistance, as well as AlAnon and NarAnon and  grandparents’ rights organizations. And often adult siblings help out too: “My son coaches the soccer team for both the girl and the boy, and my other daughter takes them on vacation with her kids,” says a grateful grandparent. “When one of us falters, we all need to step up.”

It’s natural to feel resentment, anger and disappointment at your grown kids when their children seem less like a bonus than a burden. It’s also natural to chafe at the physical as well as emotional energy they demand at a time in life when you should be done with caregiving. But taking pride and satisfaction in providing your grandchildren with a stable, loving home for as long as they need it can go a long way to lighten that load.

[1]McGarrigle, Timonen & Layte, 2018, “Choice and Constraint in the Negotiation of the Grandparent Role,” Southern Gerontological Society

References

1]McGarrigle, Timonen & Layte, 2018, “Choice and Constraint in the Negotiation of the Grandparent Role,” Southern Gerontological Society

Statistics on grandparrents raising grandchildren, , BrandonGaille.com, 2018.