As the school holidays draw to a close, and parents have already returned to the daily grind, you may have noticed a growing trend as you make your way around town. It’s increasingly common to see children out and about with their grandparents on weekdays after Mum or Dad’s annual leave has expired.
Changes in society over the last few decades mean that many parents now return to work after having children. When they do, grandparents are then often called in as a substitute or supplement to other care arrangements. In fact, Australian statistics show that 65 per cent of grandparents aged 40–69 years care for their grandchildren, with 28 per cent taking on that role at least once a week.
There are positives to this arrangement. The childcare provided by grandparents not only helps parents juggle career responsibilities and save money on childcare fees, but also provides opportunities for development of relationships across generations. By spending time with their grandparents, children can feel more connected to their family and its history. In return, grandchildren can expose their grandparents to new knowledge and experiences.
There are genuine health benefits too. A recent long-term study found that, after controlling variables like age and health, grandparents who were care givers to grandchildren lived up to five years longer than those who weren’t. But the story is different for the 2.9 million Australian seniors who have become full-time “custodial grandparents” – a group that has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s due to changing social conditions. Apart from the emotional strain these situations create, there are other challenges. Grandparents may have downsized to a smaller house and lack adequate space for children. They might be living on a fixed income or pension and struggle to pay the additional expenses raising children involves.
Custodial grandparents might also be experiencing their own age-related health problems. In neglecting their own healthcare to prioritise that of their grandchildren, seniors can develop undiagnosed health problems. Depression and anxiety are another side effect grandparents can experience from the stress of childcare. In one study of grandmothers raising grandchildren, approximately 40 per cent scored in the clinically elevated range on measures of psychological distress. It is important for grandparents who play an active role in caring for their grandchildren to remember to take care of themselves too. Groups like the Raising Children Network and COTA’s Grandparents, Relative and Kinship Carer Alliance are designed to provide support to those seniors with “grandfamilies”.
Research has found that grandparents benefit from talking with others who are primary caregivers to their grandchildren. Peer counselling support groups can encourage grandparents to take care of their own physical, mental and emotional needs, and can offer a break from the daily challenges of being full-time custodial grandparents.
Grandparents who are providing part-time support to their grandchildren these holidays also need to prioritise taking time out, doing whatever helps them relax, and staying focused on their own health needs like good nutrition and regular exercise. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. It will contribute to the ongoing stability and wellbeing of all members of “grandfamilies”, and provide long-term benefits for grandparents, parents and grandchildren.
- Stig Andersen, IRT Communities CEO