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by Jessica Lahner
My husband, 12-year old son and I ran a half-marathon this past weekend. Because we were going to be gone for several hours, we needed childcare for our other three children. The first people on my babysitter list are my children’s grandparents. Not only do I trust them, but research confirms that caring for grandchildren is actually good for my parents’ well being.
In America today, we become grandparents at roughly 51-years of age (a). With the average American living for 79 years, this means we could spend one-third or more of our lives as Grandma or Grandpa (b). Lucky for us taxed parents, many grandparents welcome this news. As my mom often comments: Grandparenting is the reward for parenting. She’ll tell you about the joy she reaps from her relationships with her eight grandchildren. And, you might be wondering, she said yes to my request to babysit while we ran our race.
Grandparents not only gain emotional benefits from caring for grandkids, but an Australian study reported that grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren one day a week performed better on cognitive tests than those who didn’t provide care or have grandchildren (c). This suggests that serving in this part-time caregiving role can delay cognitive decline in old age, including dementia.
Quality Relationships: We’ve known for a while now that continued social interaction improves our quality of life as we age. But, studies continually suggest that the substance and meaning of the interaction is what’s most important (d). In other words, it’s quality relationships over quantity. And grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren are often some of their most treasured ones.
Identity, Legacy and Enjoyment: Grandparenting is rewarding, and being a grandparent becomes an important part of grandparents’ identity. They understand that the role is meaningful, and that the support they provide truly makes a difference in the lives of both their grandchildren and adult children. In later life, passing on one’s legacy to younger generations becomes a goal that is met by sharing family history and values. Also, as grandmas and grandpas, they get to enjoy all the fun that comes with parenting without the major child-rearing responsibilities. Case in point: My mom just chuckled when I found out about all the cookies and ice cream my kids ate while we were running our 13.1 miles.
Physical Health: And let’s not forget that keeping up with grandkids can go a long way toward keeping grandparents physically active. Fewer than 20% of Americans in their prime grandparenting years get the recommended amount of exercise (e). You’d never guess that, however, watching my mom this past weekend. When we rolled into the driveway after the race, Grandma was running up and down our yard playing a fierce game of soccer with our children. She certainly got her 10,000 steps in while babysitting our active crew!
Activities for Grandparents and Grandchildren
1. Play games grandparents enjoyed growing up. Checkers, Crazy 8s, Candy Land, Battleship – these (and many others) are all games both kids and grandma will be familiar with.
Sharing familiar games highlights something they have in common. It also opens the door for grandma to share stories about how she played these same games as a child.
2. Share family history while viewing photo albums. Children are fascinated by the stories that bring old family photos to life. Passing along this family history is part of creating a personal legacy that becomes important as we get older.
3. Share hobbies with each other. Both grandparents and grandkids benefit from learning the other’s hobby. When my mother teaches my children how to garden, she passes along something meaningful to her. And when my son teaches his grandpa a new magic trick (his current obsession) or how to navigate a new smartphone, the child takes on the role of teacher and gains self-confidence in the process.
While it’s tempting to sign your parents up for full-time childcare duties, there’s a catch. The Australian study suggested that more childcare isn’t better. Grandmothers that cared for their grandchildren five or more days each week performed significantly worse on the cognitive tests suggesting a negative impact of full-time care responsibilities.
Parents, we can guess why. The increased stress and responsibility that comes with full-time caregiving likely negates the positives that come with less frequent duty. This finding is consistent with other research that suggests custodial grandparents (grandparents raising grandchildren) are twice as likely to suffer from depressive symptoms than non-custodial grandparents (f).
The take-home message: Babysitting grandchildren in moderation is good for everyone. Grandma dotes on the kids while garnering health benefits, and mom and dad get some sanity-saving time away.
I couldn’t be more thankful for the support our parents provide us in our parenting role. And I feel good knowing they are getting more from caring for our kids than meets the eye. However, watching my mom with my tribe over the weekend suggests that I may have to run more races to keep up with my own future grandkids.
(a) Legacy Project. (n.d.) Fast facts on grandparenting and intergenerational mentoring. Retrieved from http://www.legacyproject.org/specialreports/fastfacts.html
(b) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/life-expectancy.htm
(c) Bum, K.F., Henderson, V.W., Ames, D., Dennerstein, L., Szoeke, C. (2014). Role of grandparenting in postmenopausal women’s cognitive health: Results from the Women’s Aging Project. Menopause, 10, 1069-1074.
(d) For an summary of relevant literature on this topic see: Honn Qualls, S. (2015, March) American Society on Aging: What social relationships can do for health. Retrieved from http://www.asaging.org/blog/what-social-relationships-can-do-health
(e) National Center for Health Statistics. (2011) Health, United States, 2010: With Special Feature on Death and Dying. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK54381/
(f) Minkler, M., Fuller-Thomson E., Miller, D., & Driver, D. (1997). Depression in grandparents raising grandchildren: Results of a national longitudinal study. Archives of Family Medicine, 6, 445-452.