June 7, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 18

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    Research shows caring for grandchildren does not undermine grandparents’ health

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Despite previous research findings that showed negative health impacts on grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren, new research conducted by Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology and the College, and researchers at three other universities shows caring for grandchildren generally does not have dramatic and widespread negative impacts on grandparents’ health.

    The research shows that some grandparents are already ill before they begin caring for grandchildren and others do not experience a health change.

    Waite and her colleagues based their work on a study of nearly 13,000 grandparents between the ages of 50 and 80.

    “A large [amount of] literature suggests that the exertion and stress associated with fulfilling these demands [of caring for grandchildren] will exact a health toll,” the authors wrote. The previous research argued that caring for grandchildren created physical demands that coincided with the onset of aging. It also suggested potential indirect effects on health, such as increased stress, less time for self-care and reduced employment.

    However, scholars involved in the current study found that even in cases where grandparents provide primary care for their grandchildren, their health is generally not undermined by the responsibility. The results of their study are published in the paper, “All in the Family: The Impact of Caring for Grandchildren on Grandparents’ Health,” which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Science.

    Much of the earlier research on the subject was done on relatively small samples of grandparents and often included grandparents who cared for grandchildren whose mothers had become involved in drugs or were incarcerated. The current study shows that in many cases, the older person’s health already was compromised before they began caring for their grandchildren.

    For the current study, the team used data from telephone and in-person interviews with grandparents during a four-year period from 1998 to 2002, as part of the federally funded Health and Retirement Study. The Health and Retirement Study is the premier data set on health, retirement and the well being of older adults. It began in 1992, and it now includes more than 20,000 respondents who are interviewed bi-annually.

    The team looked at exercise, obesity, depressive symptoms, self-rated health, chronic conditions and functional limitations. Because of the size of the sample, they were able to control for gender, age, race and ethnicity as well as education and wealth. Unlike many studies, the researchers were also able to control for grandparents’ initial health.

    The team found that of the 13,000 grandparents they studied, 29 percent of the grandmothers and 22 percent of the grandfathers provided at least 50 hours of care per year for grandchildren who did not live with them. Seven percent of grandmothers and 5 percent of grandfathers lived with their children and grandchildren, and fewer than 3 percent of the grandparents lived in homes with grandchildren whose parents were not present.

    They did find that grandmothers who began caring for grandchildren whose parents were not present in the home reported initial declines in some aspects of health. “But those who continued with the arrangements saw a modest improvement, suggesting the negative effect of starting this kind of caregiving disappears as the arrangement continues,” the researchers wrote.

    “We find increases in depressive symptoms and declines in self-related health for grandmothers who begin skipped generation care, but no change in chronic conditions or mobility limitations. We find a small improvement in health for grandmothers who continue this kind of care,” noted lead author for the paper is Mary Elizabeth Hughes, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

    Among other caregiving arrangements, such as babysitting, the team found no evidence that caring for grandchildren undermined grandparents’ health. “These findings suggest that health declines are not an inevitable consequence of grandchild care,” the authors wrote. In fact, health declines for grandparent caregivers are very much the exception.

    The authors note that grandparents who provide custodial care are in worse health to begin with, which raises concerns about how long they may be able to provide this care without support and assistance from others.

    Other authors of this paper are Tracey LaPierre, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, and Ye Luo, assistant professor of sociology, University of North Florida.

    The National Institute on Aging funded this research.